Foreign minister: Annexation ‘right now not on the agenda, everyone’s busy’

Foreign minister: Annexation ‘right now not on the agenda, everyone’s busy’

12:14 - Meeting Latin American envoys, Gabi Ashkenazi says Jerusalem ‘fully aware of the consequences’ of implementing Trump peace plan, urges pressure on Palestinians to engage with US

Plans to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank are currently not on the government’s agenda, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said Wednesday, two days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told lawmakers from his Likud party the move could still take place if the US administration gave it a green light.

“Right now it’s not on the agenda, because everyone is busy,” Ashkenazi told a group of ambassadors from Latin American countries hosted by the Foreign Ministry.

“But, as we stated, it’s a framework to solve the conflict. We prefer to do to in dialogue with our neighbors, we prefer to do to it without interfering with the existing past peace agreements [with Egypt and Jordan], and future ones. We are fully aware of the consequences of this vision and we would like to do it in a responsible way,” said the foreign minister.

Unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority continues to refuse to engage with the US administration on the peace plan it revealed in January, which proposes Israel apply sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and all West Bank settlements, Ashkenazi told the foreign ambassadors.

“I don’t understand how their refusal serves their interest, and we ask everyone who has leverage over the Palestinians to persuade them to come to the table. I hope that that will be the case.”

On Monday morning, Netanyahu said his plan to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank land is still on the cards, 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.

Later on Monday, a well-placed source told The Times of Israel that 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.

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 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 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.

“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.

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.