US envoy says annexations will only go ahead after okay from US-Israeli panel

But David Friedman avoids stating whether US-Israeli committee must deliberate West Bank sovereignty proposal before cabinet can hold vote on matter reportedly set for Tuesday

A view of the Israeli West Bank settlement of Ariel, January 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
A view of the Israeli West Bank settlement of Ariel, January 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

US Ambassador to Israel Friedman suggested on Wednesday that it may take time before Israel can move forward with annexation plans for the Jordan Valley and any West Bank settlements.

The comments in a briefing to reporters came amid Israeli reports that Israel’s caretaker cabinet would convene next Tuesday to vote on annexation, two days later than originally announced in order to allow time to prepare the proposal.

Friedman stressed that an Israeli-American committee to discuss the exact parameters of the ostensible annexation must be established first before Jerusalem can go ahead with its plans. On Tuesday, by contrast, Friedman had said that Israel was free to start annexing West Bank settlements right away.

“That committee will work with all due deliberation to get to the right spot. But it is a process that does require some effort, some understanding, some calibration. We need to see the dimensions and see that it is not inconsistent with the maps,” he said in the Wednesday briefing.

Quoting US President Donald Trump from a day earlier, Friedman said, “the agreement that we have with the prime minister is that in exchange for Israel agreeing to freeze the territory that is allocated to a Palestinian state under the vision, in exchange for accepting our plan and moving forward… [and] form[ing] a joint committee with Israel to convert the conceptual map into a more detailed and calibrated rendering so that recognition can be immediately achieved.”

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)

“The Israeli government will do what it’s going to do. But then the committee will form,” Friedman said.

“We will designate shortly the members of the committee from our side. We hope the Israeli government will do the same. We will be presented with the plan and the proposal and we’ll consider it as part of the agreement. And they’ll make a decision.”

“We’re cognizant that this is something that we’ll get to work on right away and we will try to get to the action real quickly,” he added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had initially said he wanted to bring the annexation proposal for a vote at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, but Minister Yariv Levin said earlier Wednesday that there were still several bureaucratic hurdles to leap, including “bringing the proposal before the attorney general and letting him consider the matter.”

A Likud official speaking on the condition of anonymity appeared to pour additional cold water on the possibility of an imminent annexation vote, saying “the PMO is working hard to prepare the [sovereignty cabinet] decision. This is complex work that includes maps and aerial photographs. We hope to complete it as soon as possible.”

It is unclear whether Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will green light such a move being made by a transitional government, which is largely limited from carrying out irreversible decisions.

“My point of view is that I need to help the government implement its policy and that has rules — restraint must be maintained during a transitional government,” said Mandelblit at an Institute for International Security Studies conference on Tuesday hours before US President Donald Trump released his peace plan that envisioned thirty percent of the West Bank, including all Israeli settlements coming under full Israeli sovereignty. 

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a farewell ceremony held for outgoing State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem on December 18, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“If a request is filed, I will examine it from a legal perspective,” he said in response to a question on whether he would allow the cabinet to move forward with annexation. “I don’t rule anything out. I will hear what the request is and what the explanation is for the urgency, and I will decide on that basis.”

The Ynet news site cited an unsourced estimation that Mandelblit would likely say the annexation was legal, but point out legal difficulties in making such a dramatic decision. It quoted a decision from almost 20 years ago, when attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein told prime minister Ehud Barak that there was no legal impediment to holding negotiations with the Palestinians during a transitional government, but that the timing was nevertheless inappropriate.

Netanyahu has vowed to push ahead with annexing territories that Israel would keep under the US peace plan unveiled Tuesday, despite international opposition outside the US.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday announced that he had established a special team to lead the effort to annex West Bank Jewish settlements, the Jordan Valley and the area around the Dead Sea, following the release of the Trump peace plan.

Bennett called for the interim government to begin annexing parts of the West Bank immediately, before the March 2 elections, despite the apparent contradiction with the widely accepted legal view that caretaker governments are not meant to make such dramatic policy steps.

US President Donald Trump, right, looks over to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, during an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, January 28, 2020. (AP/Susan Walsh)

Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is one of the plan’s architects, told CNN in an interview on Tuesday that he did not believe Israel would approve the annexations on Sunday, “at least not as far as I know.”

However, Friedman told reporters Tuesday in a briefing after the plan’s release that Israel was free to immediately annex West Bank settlements.

“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.

Netanyahu told reporters in Washington that the US had agreed to Israel’s immediate annexation of “additional areas” of the West Bank that are adjacent to the settlements. However, he said that Israel will not apply sovereignty immediately, but during a second phase, at a yet-undetermined time.

“We need to do some work to define exactly [what we will annex],” he said on Tuesday.

Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, has said it would only support implementing the contours of the plan after the March 2 election.

Breaking with past US administrations, the plan envisions the creation of a Palestinian state in part of the West Bank, a handful of neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and some areas of southern Israel — on condition that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and Hamas and other terror groups in the Gaza Strip disarm.

The plan also calls for allowing Israel to annex settlements, granting the Jewish state sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and ongoing overall security control west of the Jordan River, and barring Palestinians from entering Israel as refugees.

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