JERUSALEM, June 30 — Israel’s deputy premier has said West Bank annexations must wait, while allies and regional powers have condemned the project — but hours before his government can move forward, the prime minister’s plans remained unknown today.
Right-wing premier Benjamin Netanyahu has endorsed a US-proposed peace plan that paves the way for Israel to annex territory in the occupied West Bank, including Jewish settlements considered illegal under international law.
His coalition government set July 1 as the date it can begin action on President Donald Trump’s proposals, roundly rejected by the Palestinians.
Ahead of the self-imposed kick-off date, Netanyahu met in Jerusalem with US Ambassador David Friedman, a supporter of Jewish West Bank settlers, and Washington’s envoy for international negotiations, Avi Berkowitz.
“I discussed the question of sovereignty, which we are currently working on and will continue to work on in the coming days,” Netanyahu said in a statement issued after the US meeting.
Application of “sovereignty” is a term used widely in Israel to refer to what the international community considers annexation.
Yesterday, Netanyahu’s chief coalition partner, defence minister and alternate prime minister Benny Gantz, said annexation must be put on hold until Israel’s resurging coronavirus outbreak has been contained.
European powers including Britain, France and Germany as well as the UN oppose unilateral West Bank annexations as a violation of international law that would undermine a two-state solution to the conflict.
Netanyahu, in power since 2009, has pursued closer ties with Arab states, notably in the Gulf, seeking economic cooperation and a united front against common foe Iran.
But Gulf leaders have also made clear that moves towards annexation would threaten any warming relations with the Jewish state.
Even Israelis, battered by the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic, appear lukewarm about annexation moves now.
A poll by the Channel 12 network said that only five per cent of people believed that extending Israeli sovereignty over West Bank settlements should be the government’s top priority.
“In this case, one would ask, why would Mr. Netanyahu promote (annexation)?” the president of the Israeli Democracy Institute think-tank, Yohanan Plesner, told reporters.
Netanyahu has not revealed his plans, but Israeli media have suggested action could be delayed, or that the premier might pursue a merely symbolic move like the annexation of one settlement on Jerusalem’s outskirts.
Plesner said the premier may want to move forward to distract from his ongoing corruption trial, in which he denies wrongdoing.
The 70-year-old could equally be trying to cement his legacy as a leader who expanded the Jewish state’s borders, or affirm his right-wing credentials before collapsing his coalition and forcing another election, Plesner said.
Erez Yakoobi, who lectures in the psychology of leadership at Israel’s Ono Academic College, said Netanyahu is motivated by one key question: “How can I stay prime minister in the long-run?”
By not revealing his roadmap for implementing the Trump plan, Netanyahu could be playing for time, waiting to assess the diplomatic landscape.
“He doesn’t want to speak broadly about the plan until he thinks it’s the good moment to present what he will do,” Yakoobi said.
Expert have noted that Netanyahu is also watching the US presidential elections to see if Trump will be in office after January to defend his vision for Middle East peace.
Presumptive Democratic party nominee Joe Biden has publicly opposed unilateral Israeli annexations.
Beyond annexation, the Trump plan calls for the creation of a demilitarised Palestinian state, largely encircled by Israel — terms the Palestinians have dismissed as unacceptable.
In a formal counter-proposal presented to the international peacemaking Quartet, the Palestinian leadership said they are prepared to renew long-stalled peace talks with Israel and to agree to “minor” territorial concessions.
The document, obtained by AFP yesterday, said the Palestinian Authority was open to a “state with a limited number of weapons and a powerful police force to uphold law and order.” — AFP