US mulling phased annexation, starting with areas close to Jerusalem – report
Concerned about the collateral damage that could follow from allowing Israel to move ahead with its planned annexation of areas of the West Bank, Washington is reportedly considering backing the annexation of only of a handful of settlements close to Jerusalem.
Officials in the Trump administration are set to hold a decisive meeting this week on whether to approve Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declared plan to start annexing the 132 West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley — the 30 percent of the territory allocated to Israel under the administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
Netanyahu has vowed to begin the process as early as July 1. However, US enthusiasm for such a move appeared to cool amid vociferous opposition from American allies in the Middle East.
“Ultimately, as the team approaches this thought of annexation, the main thing going through our heads is, ‘Does this in fact help advance the cause of peace?’ And therefore that is what will help drive a lot of the discussion,” a senior Trump administration official told Reuters in a report Monday evening.
Rather than back Netanyahu’s broad annexation plan, the administration is looking at other options, including a staged process in which Israel would start by declaring sovereignty only over several settlements in the Jerusalem area, the report said, citing an unnamed source.
The official noted that Washington has not ruled out Netanyahu’s larger annexation vision but is concerned that a large-scale, rapid, unilateral move by Israel could seal off any chance that the Palestinians may agree to discuss Trump’s peace plan, unveiled in January.
The administration is also worried about increasing opposition to annexation coming from Jordan and US-allied Gulf States that have been unobtrusively building ties with Israel, the source explained.
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner and Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz are all expected to be at the Washington meeting. US President Donald Trump may also take part, Reuters said.
A central issue in the White House meeting is likely to be the internal disagreement in the Israeli coalition over annexation: While Netanyahu is vigorously championing the move, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi say the Trump plan should be implemented in coordination with Jordan and the Palestinians.
Last week, Channel 13 news reported that Netanyahu presented Gantz and Ashkenazi with four scenarios for annexing West Bank lands, one of which was said to be a symbolic move rather than the full 30%. The report did not provide further details on the different scenarios. A subsequent Channel 12 report claimed, by contrast, that all four of Netanyahu’s maps provided for annexing all 132 settlements, and that the overall territory to be annexed in these four scenarios ranged from 12% to 30%.
As of last weekend, the Israel Defense Forces had not yet seen maps of the territories proposed for annexation, but reports Friday said Israeli security officials would be shown the maps this week.
Under the coalition deal between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White, Netanyahu can begin annexing settlements and the Jordan Valley from July 1. The Trump administration initially indicated it would not oppose Netanyahu’s declared plans to do so, providing Israel accepts its peace plan, which conditionally provides for a Palestinian state on the remaining 70% of the territory. So far the Palestinians have rejected the entire plan.
Netanyahu’s vows to push ahead with unilateral annexation have been condemned internationally, with European and Arab states, as well as senior members of the US Democratic Party, warning the Israeli government against doing so.
Meanwhile, top Republicans spearheaded a letter backing Israel’s right to determine its borders.
“We write to reaffirm the unshakeable alliance between the United States and Israel, to emphasize that Israel has the right to make sovereign decisions independent of outside pressure, and to express our support for you as you make such decisions in your capacity as Israel’s democratically-elected prime minister,” said the letter sent to Netanyahu on Monday.
JTA contributed to this report.