US envoy Friedman hails new government as J Street decries annexation plans

Ambassador says he’s ‘delighted’ by unity deal, looks forward to advancing interests; liberal advocacy group warns planned West Bank sovereignty bid imperils Israeli democracy

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks during the Kohelet Forum Conference at the Begin Heritage Center, in Jerusalem, on January 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks during the Kohelet Forum Conference at the Begin Heritage Center, in Jerusalem, on January 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on Monday night expressed his satisfaction with the new Israeli unity government agreed in a deal between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz.

“Delighted to see that Israel’s two leading political parties, led by PM Netanyahu & MK Gantz, have agreed to form a unity government,” Friedman tweeted. “The United States looks forward to working closely with the new gov’t to advance our shared values and interests bilaterally and across the world.”

One of the key issues Friedman and the US administration will be be working on with the new government is Israel’s plan to annex West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley as part of the US peace plan.

Though the Trump administration has indicated it will green-light annexation under the plan, it conditioned the move on a new government being formed and on a joint committee mapping out the areas of the West Bank that Israel may annex.

Though Gantz has indicated he would be opposed to unilateral annexation, the coalition deal allows Netanyahu to move ahead with the issue after July 1, so long as he has a Knesset majority to do so — which he almost certainly will even without Blue and White’s support.

Annexation would likely elicit outrage in the Arab world, could have dire consequences for relations with the Palestinian Authority and is even seen as potentially endangering Israel’s peace deal with Jordan.

A view overlooks the West Bank settlement of Ari’el, January 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Jewish liberal advocacy group J Street said Monday it was “deeply alarmed” by the prospect of Israeli annexation going forward, warning it would damage chances of creating an independent Palestinian state and “severely imperil Israel’s future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people, along with the future of the US-Israel relationship.”

It called on US leaders to make clear to Israel that such action could severely damage the two nations’ relationship going forward.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations also issued a statement on the formation of the new government, though it did not comment on the annexation issue. The Jewish leaders merely welcomed the new coalition which they said could now focus on health and security challenges, and said they looked forward to “working with the new government to strengthen the US-Israel special relationship and the bonds between Israel and the American Jewish community.”

A Channel 13 report Saturday said the European Union had warned Gantz against agreeing to annexation in coalition negotiations. Officials were said to caution that any such move by a potential unity government would damage Israel’s relations with the EU and elicit a strong response.

Unnamed European diplomats told the network that Gantz’s foreign affairs adviser responded that he had been forced to compromise on his views on annexation, but would try to influence the decision from within the government.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sign their unity government agreement on April 20, 2020. (GPO)

Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, in a move never recognized by the international community. The Palestinians claim the territory as part of their future state.

According to clause 29 of the coalition deal, Netanyahu “will be able to bring the agreement reached with the US on the application of sovereignty [in the West Bank]… for the approval of the cabinet and/or the Knesset starting July 1, 2020.”

Setting out two legislative paths to enact annexation, the deal appears to provide Netanyahu with an alternative route if he fails to gain a majority for annexation in the cabinet, where some half of the ministers will be Blue and White members. It is more likely to pass in the Knesset given that the right-wing Likud, Yamina, Yisrael Beytenu, United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, which all have voiced support for annexation, hold a majority there.

The deal stipulates that Netanyahu and Gantz will act in “full agreement with the US, including on the issue of [West Bank] maps, and in dialogue with the international community.”

Washington has largely given its blessing to Israel’s annexation efforts, saying it would rescind its veto once a government has been formed and the joint US-Israel mapping team has completed its efforts. Their work has been hindered due to the coronavirus, though the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office told the Makor Rishon newspaper that the pandemic has not forced a total cessation of efforts.

Still, some analysts speculate that Washington may be more hesitant to allow such a far-reaching move to go forward just months before the November presidential election.

The inclusion of a clause all but ensuring annexation marks a significant victory for Netanyahu, who in the year’s past three election campaigns promised voters that he would impose Israeli sovereignty over all settlements, as well as over the Jordan Valley, if reelected premier.

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