Rare public spat between Netanyahu and Trump administration

White House: PM’s claim US and Israel discussing settlement annexation is false

Netanyahu hurriedly backtracks after administration spokesman insists: ‘The US and Israel have never discussed such a proposal’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara attend an event marking 50 years of Israeli settlements in Samaria, in Barkan, in the West Bank, on August 28, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara attend an event marking 50 years of Israeli settlements in Samaria, in Barkan, in the West Bank, on August 28, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Monday flatly denied Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that the US and Israel were discussing proposals for Israel to annex West Bank settlements. The highly unusual, on-the-record US denial of the prime minister’s remarks prompted a rapid backtrack by Netanyahu’s office.

“Reports that the United States discussed with Israel an annexation plan for the West Bank are false,” White House spokesman Josh Raffel said in a statement. “The United States and Israel have never discussed such a proposal, and the president’s focus remains squarely on his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.”

Raffel’s statement came hours after Netanyahu announced at a Likud faction meeting that he’d been discussing with the Trump administration a “historic” initiative to annex Israeli settlement areas over the Green Line.

“I can tell you that for a while now I’ve been talking about it with the Americans,” Netanyahu said. “I’m guided by two principles in this issue … optimal coordination with the Americans, whose relationship with us is a strategic asset for Israel and the settlement movement; and the fact that it must be a government initiative rather than a private one because it would be a historic move.”

US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 25, 2018 (AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm)

In the wake of the White House denial, Netanyahu swiftly backpedalled, with his office issuing a clarification that he had merely “updated the Americans on initiatives being presented in the Knesset.”

Hadashot news called the White House’s on-record denial of Netanyahu’s claim, and the prime minister’s swift reversal, an unprecedented clash between the prime minister and the Trump administration.

Shortly before Raffel issued his statement, a senior Israeli diplomatic official, speaking on condition of anonymity, had also denied the prime minister’s assertion.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not present the US administration with specific proposals for West Bank annexation,” the Israeli official said. He added that since nothing formal was presented, the US “did not express support for the proposals.”

In sharp contrast to Netanyahu’s remarks, the official said that Israel had “updated the US on various proposals that are being brought up in the Knesset, and the US expressed its clear position that it hopes to present [US] President [Donald] Trump’s peace plan.”

“Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position is that if the Palestinians continue to refuse negotiating peace — Israel will present its own alternatives,” the official added.

The Prime Minister’s Office’s subsequent clarification echoed these words:  “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu updated the Americans on initiatives being presented in the Knesset, and the Americans stated their unequivocal view that they are committed to furthering President Trump’s peace plan,” the later statement said.

The rapid-fire statements marked a rare instance of discord between the Israeli government and the Trump White House, which is seen as the most pro-Israel administration in decades.

Netanyahu’s initial declaration to his Likud colleagues immediately startled stakeholders in the conflict from all sides, as virtually all of the international community considers the settlements in violation of international law, and the US administration considers them an impediment to peace.

American Ambassador to Israel David Friedman attends the lobby for Israel-US relations at the Knesset on July 25, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While Trump has placed longtime settlement supporters in prominent positions in his administration, including David Friedman as his US ambassador to Israel, he himself has called the enterprise an obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

In an interview published Sunday with the Sheldon Adelson-owned Israel Hayom daily, Trump said, “The settlements are something that very much complicates and always have complicated making peace, so I think Israel has to be very careful with the settlements.”

In the same interview, Trump also questioned whether Israel was serious about making peace, while saying that the Palestinians were not looking to make peace either.

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