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White House still mulling annexation, which could happen this month – source

After Netanyahu says application of sovereignty depends on US, ToI told ‘more discussions are required’ about a ‘package’ to sweeten pill for Palestinians

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

Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz, Special Assistant to the President Alexa Henning, Senior Adviser to President Donald Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley walk out of the White House, May 8, 2020. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, via JTA)
Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz, Special Assistant to the President Alexa Henning, Senior Adviser to President Donald Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley walk out of the White House, May 8, 2020. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, via JTA)

Avi Berkowitz, the US administration’s envoy to the Middle East, is continuing to work on the implementation of US President Donald Trump’s peace proposal, including conducting meetings with interlocutors preparing for possible Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, according to a well-placed source.

More discussions between Jerusalem and Washington are needed for annexation to take place, as are gestures toward the Palestinians, the source said, but the move could possibly get underway in the near future. But after August ends, annexation becomes increasingly unlikely due to the approaching US elections in November, he added.

The controversial plan had all but disappeared from the public agenda since Berkowitz’s last visit to Jerusalem in late June. But the envoy has held ongoing meetings on the matter, preparing for various options, the source told The Times of Israel on Monday.

Senior officials in Washington have repeatedly said that it was up to Israel to decide if and when it wants to extend sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday indicated that the ball was in Washington’s court.

The US team working on the Israeli-Palestinian file wants to make sure that any Israeli annexation would be combined with some kind of goodwill gesture toward the Palestinians, and Berkowitz has been working on a “package” to sweeten the pill of annexation for the Palestinians, the source said, without elaborating.

US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk with reporters before a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, January 27, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“More discussions are required to make sure all sides are coordinated on this package,” the source said. It was regrettable that the Palestinian leadership refuses to engage with the Trump administration, he added, but Washington will still insist that Ramallah not be left empty-handed, in case Israel gets the go-ahead for annexation.

It is indeed possible that Jerusalem and Washington will agree on a move — possibly applying Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and all settlements, or alternatively only to one or several settlement blocs in the Jerusalem area — later this month, the source added. But it would be unlikely for the White House to greenlight annexation in September or subsequent to then, due to the upcoming November election in the US.

The administration’s peace team, headed by Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner, has been working on the issue for the last few weeks, to be prepared for all options, if and when it becomes relevant again, the source said, speaking to The Times of Israel on the condition of anonymity.

While Kushner and Berkowitz have kept the issue away from the headlines as the US administration’s fight against the coronavirus dominated the national news cycle, they continued to hold meetings on the matter.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting at Chagall State Hall in the Knesset on May 24, 2020. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)

Netanyahu on Monday said his plan to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank land is not off the table, but is being held up by the US administration.

“The issue of applying sovereignty is in Washington. It’s not off the table, the option still exists,” he told his Likud party’s faction meeting.

Netanyahu had declared his intention to move forward with partial annexation, under the auspices of the US peace plan, from July 1, but that date came and went without any movement on the matter, and, in recent weeks, the prime minister has been largely silent on the issue.

Reports in recent months have indicated that the White House has cooled on the Israeli proposal, amid the raging coronavirus pandemic, race protests, upcoming national elections, and other considerations.

The White House has said repeatedly that it is up to Israel to decide on annexation, but has yet to give a definitive answer as to whether it is prepared to support and recognize the unilateral annexation now of part or all of the 30 percent of the West Bank allocated to Israel in its peace plan.

That would include all of the settlements along with the strategic Jordan Valley.

The plan also provides for the conditional establishment of a Palestinian state on the rest of the West Bank territory, with some additional territory inside Israel, further down the line.

Palestinian farmers harvest onions in Jordan Valley in the West Bank, February 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File)

Last month, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin acknowledged in private conversations that no attention is currently being given in Washington to Israeli annexation plans, according to an Army Radio report. The US administration’s attention is elsewhere, the report claimed Levin had said, and “it is not listening” when it comes to annexation.

Netanyahu has embraced the Trump plan, at least insofar as it pertains to annexation, which has been entirely rejected by the Palestinians.

The US aside, the international community has voiced near-unanimous opposition to unilateral annexation.

Peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have been moribund since 2014.

In a counter to the Trump plan, the Palestinians have presented their own proposal and offered to restart direct negotiations on the basis of an Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 lines, with minor border adjustments.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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