US envoy Friedman let Gantz know beforehand of settlement policy change — report
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US envoy Friedman let Gantz know beforehand of settlement policy change — report

American official quoted as saying Washington would have delayed announcement if Blue and White chief had said he was close to forming coalition

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, left, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, center, and US peace envoy Jason Greenblatt, right, meeting at the US Embassy's branch office in Tel Aviv on September 23, 2019. (Courtesy/Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, left, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, center, and US peace envoy Jason Greenblatt, right, meeting at the US Embassy's branch office in Tel Aviv on September 23, 2019. (Courtesy/Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)

David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, informed Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz ahead of Monday’s announcement by the Trump administration that the US doesn’t view West Bank settlements as illegal, a report said Tuesday.

According to Channel 13 news, Friedman gave Gantz a heads-up to avoid any appearance of interfering in Israeli politics. Gantz is currently working to cobble together a government, but his time runs out on Wednesday night.

“If Gantz told us that within 24 hours he was going to form a government and asked us to wait, we wouldn’t have published the announcement,” a US official familiar with the conversion between Friedman and Gantz was quoted as saying.

During the phone call, Gantz did not express any opposition to the move or ask that it be delayed, the report said.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday that the US was softening its position on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and repudiating a 1978 State Department legal opinion that held that they were “inconsistent with international law.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo makes a statement during a press conference at the US Department of State in Washington, DC, on November 18, 2019. (JIM WATSON/AFP)

“After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate,” Pompeo told reporters, the United States had concluded that “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.”

“Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law hasn’t worked. It hasn’t advanced the cause of peace,” Pompeo said.

Even though the US decision was largely symbolic, it was seen by some as possibly aimed at giving a boost to Netanyahu, who is fighting for his political survival after he was unable to form a coalition government following the recent elections.

Gantz hailed the US policy shift after the announcement by Pompeo.

“The fate of the settlements and the residents of Judea and Samaria should be determined by agreements that meet security requirements and that can promote a peace that will serve both sides while reflecting the reality on the ground,” Gantz wrote in a tweet.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tours the Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank on November 19, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Netanyahu also lauded the US decision, saying it was “righting a historical wrong.”

Both the right-wing Netanyahu and centrist Gantz say they support continued settlement building, and both have expressed support for annexation of the Jordan Valley, a corridor of land where the West Bank meets Jordan.

The move angered Palestinians and was rebuked by many other countries, but delighted Israeli right-wing politicians and settler leaders who quickly called on the government to go ahead with annexing settlements.

The international community overwhelmingly considers the settlements illegal. This is based in part on the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bars an occupying power from transferring parts of its own civilian population to occupied territory. Israel rejects the position that the territories are occupied, maintaining that they were captured from Jordan in a defensive war.

Israel captured the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, in the 1967 Six Day War after 19 years of Jordanian rule, and later began settling the newly conquered territory.

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