TV: Trump, top aides to decide this week whether to back Netanyahu’s annexation

‘Decisive’ White House meeting, to be attended by Pompeo, Kushner, Friedman, said set to determine whether US okays PM’s July 1 plan for sovereignty over settlements, Jordan Valley

US President Donald Trump (center) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second from left) alongside Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer (left), US Vice President Mike Pence, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (2nd right) and White House adviser Jared Kushner (right) in the Oval Office of the White House on January 27, 2020 (SAUL LOEB / AFP)
US President Donald Trump (center) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second from left) alongside Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer (left), US Vice President Mike Pence, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (2nd right) and White House adviser Jared Kushner (right) in the Oval Office of the White House on January 27, 2020 (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

The White House will this week hold a “decisive” meeting on whether to approve Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declared plan to start from July 1 annexing the 132 West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley — the 30 percent of the territory allocated to Israel under the Trump administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, Israel’s Channel 13 reported Saturday night.

Citing unnamed American and Israeli sources, the report said US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman is to fly home on Sunday for the pivotal meeting, which is scheduled for Monday or Tuesday, and which is also to be attended by Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; and National Security Adviser Richard O’Brien. Friedman may meet with Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz before he leaves.

Trump himself is “likely” to join the session, the report said, since “he’s the one who will ultimately decide” on whether to approve Israeli annexation, and if so on what scale.

Trump’s peace process envoy Avi Berkowitz was set to head to Israel this week as part of the ongoing Israeli-American work on the Trump proposal, but canceled his trip in order to participate in the White House meeting, the TV report added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right), then-US National Security Advisor John Bolton (center) and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman tour the Jordan Valley on June 23, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Friedman, who indicated firm support for unilateral Israeli annexation immediately after Trump unveiled the “Peace to Prosperity” initiative at the White House in January, strongly backs Netanyahu’s declared intention to go ahead with the move now, the TV report said. Pompeo, who came back from a visit to Israel last month concerned at the potential destabilizing of the region — especially given Jordan’s bitter objections — is now reportedly inclined to support Netanyahu’s move.

But Kushner, who played a central role in drafting the Trump peace proposal — which was formally designed to serve as a basis for Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, but was flatly rejected by the Palestinian Authority — is more ambivalent. Kushner has “no ideological opposition” to Israeli annexation, but does not want Israel to take steps that would harm the Trump proposal. Rather, he favors moves that would serve the goals of the plan and the prospects of advancing it in the future, Channel 13 said.

US President Donald Trump (right) speaks about the coronavirus in the White House, with Jared Kushner by his side, on Thursday, April 2, 2020 (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

A central issue in the White House meeting is likely to be the internal disagreement in the Israeli coalition over annexation now, which Netanyahu is vigorously championing, while Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi have said the Trump plan should be implemented in coordination with Jordan and the Palestinians.

A joint US-Israel committee has been mapping out the West Bank areas set to come under Israeli rule, and has not yet completed its work, having been delayed in part by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Times of Israel was told earlier this month that the committee was weeks away from finishing the job, and that the US was “highly unlikely” to green-light annexation by Netanyahu’s July 1 target date.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, (right) accompanied by Sen. Ben Cardin on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC (Evan Vucci/AP Images/JTA)

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has expressed opposition to unilateral Israeli annexation, and three of Israel’s most stalwart boosters among Democrats in Congress on Friday warned against it. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, and Sens. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Robert Menendez of New Jersey released a statement saying: “A sustainable peace deal that ensures the long-term security of Israel and self-determination for Palestinians must be negotiated directly between the two parties. Unilateral annexation runs counter to those longstanding policies and could undermine regional stability and broader US national security interests in the region.”

A letter circulating among House Democrats issuing a similar warning has garnered over 120 signatures, including by Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the majority leader.

Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer on Saturday wrote that the Israeli annexation plan will help, not hurt, the prospects of peace with the Palestinians, by convincing them to abandon their “illusion” of ending the Jewish state project and agree to a true two-state solution. In an opinion piece (paywall) for The Washington Post, Dermer wrote that the international community’s policies have inadvertently helped the Palestinians foster false hopes of one day overthrowing Israel.

As of this weekend, the IDF had not yet seen maps of the territories proposed for annexation, but reports Friday said Israeli security officials would finally be shown the maps next week.

Israeli Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz (left) speaks to Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool Photo via AP)

The maps that will be shown to military and other security agencies are the same ones Netanyahu presented to Defense Minister Gantz on Thursday, Channel 12 news reported.

The network said that under all four of the scenarios for annexation detailed in the maps, Israel would extend territory over most of the settlements and a total of anywhere from 12% to 30% of the West Bank. A television report Wednesday, by contrast, had said one of the options floated by Netanyahu would see Israel annex only a small part of the West Bank in a largely symbolic move.

In a separate report, Channel 13 news said IDF generals told Gantz during meetings this week they will need several weeks once a final decision on annexation is made to prepare security-wise. Quoting unnamed officials who took part in the meetings, the report said the preparations would include calling up reservists and deploying forces, among other measures.

A section of Israel’s security barrier between the Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit, right, and the outskirts of the West Bank village of Bilin, near Ramallah, on June 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The officials also said they would need several months to prepare the “civil” aspects of annexation, noting the potential legal complications of annexing any settlements built on private Palestinian land. Other possible complexities cited by the officials were having to alter the route of the West Bank security barrier and determining if Palestinians who own farmland in the Jordan Valley but live elsewhere will be able to access their lands.

“These are only a few small examples. There are dozens or hundreds of problematic civil matters that come up only when you start thinking about annexation. All these matters [require] the formulation of policy and decision-making,” the officials were quoted saying by the network.

Channel 13 also said Netanyahu and Gantz held further talks Friday on annexation, but did not make any progress toward reaching an agreement. The two have met several times in recent days to discuss the matter, including for talks attended by Friedman.

Under the coalition agreement between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White, the premier can begin moving forward with extending sovereignty over some 30% of the West Bank, covering all 132 settlements and the Jordan Valley, on July 1, which he has pledged repeatedly to do. Netanyahu has said US support for annexation represents a historic opportunity, and the US has indicated that it will not oppose Israeli annexation, but has lately signaled ambivalence about the timing of such a move.

The 30% represents the territory allocated to Israel under the Trump administration peace plan unveiled in January, which is intended to serve as a basis for a negotiated deal with the Palestinians, but which the Palestinians have preemptively rejected.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Netanyahu’s vows to push ahead with unilateral annexation have been condemned internationally, with European and Arab states, as well as senior members of the US Democratic Party, warning the Israeli government against doing so.

Jordanian King Abdullah II delivers a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, on January 15, 2020 (Photo by Frederick FLORIN / AFP)

Jordanian King Abdullah this week deemed unilateral annexation “unacceptable” in briefings to American lawmakers, and is expected to withdraw his ambassador, downgrade ties with Israel and reconsider the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty if Netanyahu goes ahead. Abdullah also said he was trying to persuade Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to enter negotiations with Israel, and Jordan’s foreign minister this week reportedly told Abbas in Ramallah to telephone Trump to explain his opposition to unilateral Israeli annexation.

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