US envoy says White House ‘will fight’ any Israeli West Bank annexation efforts

Tom Nides says he expects to work closely with incoming government, says it remains to be seen if he’d meet with far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides attends a conference at Reichman University in Herzliya, September 11, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides attends a conference at Reichman University in Herzliya, September 11, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides warned in interviews that the White House would push back against any attempts by the expected incoming Israeli government to annex all or parts of the West Bank.

“Our position is quite clear: We do not support annexation. We will fight any attempt to do so,” Nides told the Kan public broadcaster’s diplomatic correspondent Gili Cohen in an interview aired Thursday, adding that “most of the Arab countries” feel the same way.

Nides’s comments came after senior Likud MK Yariv Levin said following his meeting with President Isaac Herzog during party consultations on Wednesday that West Bank annexation was high on the government’s agenda.

“We brought the State of Israel closer than ever before to applying sovereignty [over the West Bank],” Levin said at the President’s Residence. “We were just a step away on that issue in the past, and I hope that we’ll be able to continue in that direction.”

Just ahead of the Abraham Accords in 2020, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced an intention to move ahead with annexing portions of the West Bank with the support of then-president Donald Trump.

But the plan was shelved as part of the burgeoning peace deal with the United Arab Emirates, which strongly opposed any annexation efforts.

Likud MK Yariv Levin, flanked by party MKs Eli Cohen and Miri Regev, speaks to the press after meeting with President Isaac Herzog at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on November 9, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In an interview with the Ynet news site on Wednesday, Nides said that he was not worried by the prospect of annexation, and did not expect Israel to try to go through with it.

The US envoy told Kan that he intends to work closely with the expected future right-wing government.

“I want to start with a relationship with this government that is strong, that is enduring. I want to work closely with prime minister Netanyahu,” said Nides. “That said, we have to stand up for the things that we believe in — that’s what American values are about… There will be times that we will articulate what we believe our differences are.”

Asked if he would meet with far-right Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir, who is expected to receive a senior cabinet post, Nides said time would tell.

“I’m not going to make draconian statements that I’m not ever going to talk to anyone — it doesn’t matter left or right,” said Nides. “We’ll see who gets to be in these positions… I want to see rhetorically what they say and how they act.”

Otzma Yehudit party leader Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to supporters at the party’s campaign headquarters in Jerusalem at the end of election day, November 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The US envoy said his job “is to keep dialogues going, conversations going, but push back on things we disagree with — and I will be pushing back aggressively on things that we disagree with.”

Asked if he would invite Ben Gvir to the traditional embassy July 4 party next year, Nides laughed loudly, and said only: “There are a lot of things that could happen in the next six months.”

US officials have privately expressed serious concerns over the potential future role of Ben Gvir, a firebrand MK who ran an anti-Arab campaign and has a history of inflammatory statements, as well as past convictions for incitement.

On Monday, US President Joe Biden phoned Netanyahu to congratulate him on last week’s election victory.

According to a Hebrew statement from Netanyahu’s office, during the eight-minute phone call with Biden, the US leader told Israel’s presumed next premier that “we’re brothers” and “we’ll make history together.”

An official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that the Biden administration is still waiting for the Israeli government to be formed before making any policy decisions. However, the US will likely have a hard time working with ministers such as Ben Gvir and Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, the official said.

Pressed for his reaction on the rise of the far-right in Israel, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US “hope[s] that all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups.”

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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