WASHINGTON — US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said Tuesday that Israel was free to immediately annex West Bank settlements, minutes after the long-awaited release of US President Donald Trump’s proposal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In a briefing with reporters, Friedman, a long-time supporter of the settlement enterprise, said that the four-year settlement freeze included in Trump’s offer did not apply to the existing settlements, which would become part of Israel, according to the plan.
“Israel does not have to wait at all,” he said, when asked whether there was a “waiting period” over when the country could extend Israeli sovereignty to the settlements.
“The waiting period would be the time it takes for them to obtain internal approvals and to obviously create the documentation, the calibration, the mapping, that would enable us to evaluate it, makes sure it’s consistent with the conceptual map,” he added. “If they wish to apply Israeli law to those areas allocated to Israel, we will recognize it.”
Shortly after a White House press conference in which Trump laid out the broad terms of the proposal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters that he will bring the annexation of the Jordan Valley and all West Bank settlements for a vote in Sunday’s cabinet meeting.
The 50-page plan provides for an eventual Palestinian state in much of the West Bank, minus the Jordan Valley and a network of enclaves carved out to include all of Israel’s settlements and slivers of land connecting them. The state is predicated on conditions including demilitarization, the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and ongoing overall Israeli security control in the West Bank.
Israeli right-wing politicians, including Yamina’s Naftali Bennett and Ayalet Shaked, and settler leaders reacted to the Trump announcement by calling for the annexation of the settlements and Jordan Valley areas as soon as possible.
The Palestinian leadership, which has cut off ties with the Trump administration since it announced it would move the US embassy to Jerusalem, has already rejected the deal.
Said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas: “No, no and no to the ‘Deal of the Century.’ Jerusalem is not for sale. All of our rights are not for sale or bartering.” He added that the Palestinian people will send the US plan to “the dustbin of history.”
Friedman insisted that the deal was structured knowing the Palestinians were all but certain to repudiate it.
“It doesn’t matter what the Palestinians say,” he said. “We’re going to keep this option open for them for four years. That’s what we want.”
Earlier Tuesday, Trump unveiled a plan that he said includes “a realistic two-state solution.” He emphasized that his administration would “work to create a territory for a contiguous Palestinian state in the future” that would “reject terrorism.”
Under the plan, Jerusalem would remain Israel’s “undivided capital,” though under the proposal outlying parts of East Jerusalem beyond the security barrier would become the Palestinian capital.
Meanwhile, the status quo in Jerusalem’s Temple Mount compound would be preserved in coordination with Jordan, which would maintain its special role in managing the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
After Trump’s press conference with Netanyahu, the White House published a map of its territorial vision.
In a conversation with the press, Friedman said that Israel had committed to no development in the areas of the West Bank that the Trump team said would comprise a future Palestinian state.
“They’re committed to negotiating a two-state solution with the Palestinians over the next four years, even if the Palestinians reject it in the short run,” he said. “The area that is allocated to the Palestinians will be frozen. There will be no Israeli building there.”
“It will be there to preserve the territorial integrity of the two-state solution. Hopefully, the Palestinians will rise up and claim their prize,” he added.
Friedman also addressed speculation that the timing of the announcement was intended to boost Netanyahu’s March 2 electoral chances and distract from Trump’s impeachment hearing.
The Trump official said the US decided to release the plan now because both Netanyahu and his political rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, had endorsed the plan, and Washington wanted to put it out before Trump was bogged down with the re-election campaign later in the year.
“We spoke to the prime minister and said, ‘We’re sort of running out of time, we’d like to do this while the president has the opportunity to give this all the attention that it deserves before he goes full-press with the election season,” Friedman recalled.
After Netanyahu expressed approval, he said, the US team briefed Gantz and his staff on the details of the plan.
“I found that both the Gantz group and the Netanyahu group were fully in favor of the plan and both wanted it to come out,” Friedman said. “Our feeling was, since we had two people, one of them is certain to be the prime minister of the next government, if they’re both in accord and they’re both willing to support it, then we’ve depoliticized the issue.”
He added: “It really wasn’t anything but having achieved an agreement with the two leaders of the country that they were both going to support it, and we could put it out in a non-political way.”