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West Bank annexation not contingent on Palestinian state, US officials emphasize

Administration officials tell ToI annexation can go ahead in the absence of a Palestinian state if Ramallah continues to refuse to negotiate

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, center, and then-Tourism Minister Yariv Levin during a meeting to discuss mapping extension of Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank, held in the Ariel settlement, February 24, 2020. (David Azagury/US Embassy Jerusalem)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, center, and then-Tourism Minister Yariv Levin during a meeting to discuss mapping extension of Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank, held in the Ariel settlement, February 24, 2020. (David Azagury/US Embassy Jerusalem)

Amid reports intimating that the White House is conditioning its support for Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank on negotiations over a Palestinian state, the administration stressed Friday that it continues to back Israel’s annexation plans, as long as they’re carried out in the framework of the peace plan President Donald Trump presented on January 28.

“Our position has not changed,” a spokesperson for the US Embassy in Jerusalem told The Times of Israel on Friday. “As we have made consistently clear, we are prepared to recognize Israeli actions to extend Israeli sovereignty and the application of Israeli law to areas of the West Bank that the [Trump peace plan] foresees as being part of the State of Israel.”

In exchange for American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the areas the administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” vision earmarks as part of Israel, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to freeze all settlement activity for the next four years in areas the plan envisions for a future Palestinian state, “and negotiate with the Palestinians in good faith on the basis of the Vision,” the spokesperson added.

“This will give the Palestinians an opportunity to come to the table and negotiate a peace agreement that will result in the establishment of a state of their own. The United States stands ready and willing to offer wide-ranging assistance to facilitate a final peace agreement.”

On Thursday, the US news website Axios published an article entitled “West Bank annexations must come in context of Palestinian state, White House tells Israel.”

Some observers understood this to mean that the administration would only agree to recognize Israel’s annexation if Jerusalem agreed to the creation of a Palestinian state.

The story itself does not make that claim. Rather, it quotes US officials saying that any Israeli annexations must come “in the context of an offer to the Palestinians to achieve statehood based upon specific terms, conditions, territorial dimensions and generous economic support.”

A spokesperson for the US State Department was quoted by The Times of Israel to the same effect on Monday.

Indeed, the administration’s position has not changed, a senior US official told The Times of Israel on Friday.

“There is no scoop. We’ve been saying the same thing since Day 1,” he said.

US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in the East Room of the White House on January 28, 2020, in Washington. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images/AFP)

The US will recognize an Israeli application of sovereignty over parts of the West Bank when a) the joint US-Israel mapping committee has completed its work, b) the Israeli government implements the four-freeze of the areas earmarked for a future Palestinian state and c) the government formally agrees to negotiate with the Palestinians a final-status peace deal based on terms Trump’s peace deal, the official said.

If the Palestinians continue to refuse to engage with the US and Israel on the plan, annexation can go ahead in the absence of a Palestinian state, he added.

Netanyahu has declared repeatedly that he considers the so-called deal of the century a golden opportunity that Israel must not miss, and that he is willing to fulfill the above-mentioned criteria before pressing ahead with annexation.

“Three months ago, the Trump peace plan recognized Israel’s rights in all of Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu said Sunday, referring to the West Bank by its biblical name. “And President Trump pledged to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Jewish communities there and in the Jordan Valley.”

He added: “A couple of months from now, I’m confident that that pledge will be honored.”

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

According to the wording of the “emergency government” deal between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White faction, starting July 1, 2020, 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.”

In addition, “the law will be passed as quickly as possible… and will not be disrupted or delayed by the chairmen of either the House or the Foreign Affairs and Defense committees.”

The Netanyahu-Gantz deal stipulates that any Israeli action would need US backing, and must take into account Israel’s peace treaties with neighboring Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab states that have formal peace treaties and diplomatic relations with Israel.

While the Trump deal formally calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state with limited sovereignty in four years, it is conditioned on a long list of demands and requirement that no Palestinian leadership is likely to accept.

Still, some members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, as well as his current and potentially future coalition partners from the pro-settlement Yamina list, are staunchly opposed to the very notion of a Palestinian state on any parts of the West Bank. The US administration’s insistence on making green light for annexation contingent on a (even theoretical) commitment to Palestinian statehood could hence complicate coalition negotiations.

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