Trump team pressing Israel to delay annexation, seeking support for plan

Netanyahu made the political calculation that it would hurt him more than help him if he defied the White House on the timing of annexation.
Sunday 16/02/2020
A 2018 file picture shows US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (L) and Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner during the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem. (AFP)
Same direction, slower pace. A 2018 file picture shows US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (L) and Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner during the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem. (AFP)

After the unveiling of the Deal of the Century at the White House in late January, which witnessed a love fest between US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, it seemed that the latter was going to move full speed ahead with annexation of settlements in the West Bank.

After all, Trump said the United States would endorse Israeli sovereignty over these settlements, including the Jordan Valley, as part of the overall peace plan, which was music to Netanyahu’s ears.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who attended the White House ceremony, said Israel “does not have to wait” before it could extend sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the settlements in the West Bank. He added that, if Israel applies Israeli law to those areas, “then we [the United States] will recognise Israeli sovereignty” there.

Netanyahu said he was excited by the prospect of extending Israeli sovereignty to the areas and would convene a cabinet meeting very soon to endorse the annexation plan.

However, it appeared that Friedman and Netanyahu were getting ahead of the game. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the main architect of the peace plan, did not want annexation to proceed immediately. Undoubtedly, he had the support of Trump to slow things down.

Kushner stated in several subsequent interviews that the White House did not want Israel to annex any of these areas until the work of a “bilateral US-Israeli committee” that would map out specific areas of the settlements and allow for a contiguous Palestinian area was finished. Kushner added that the process of creating such a detailed map could take a couple of months — in other words, after the Israeli elections in early March.

Although Kushner was using a technical argument to delay the annexation plan, he appears to want to slow the process down to elicit political support for the plan from Arab and European countries. By allowing Israel to annex the areas immediately, the chances for outside support would be diminished in his estimation.

Israeli settlers reacted angrily to the delay. The head of the Yesha Council, which oversees 150 settlements in the West Bank, David Elhayani, told the Washington Post that not only did Kushner mislead Netanyahu, he “took a knife and put it in Netanyahu’s back.”

Friedman, who has had long ties to the settler movement, got on board with the new Trump policy. Speaking to the right-wing Jerusalem Post on February 7, he acknowledged that there was some confusion following the White House ceremony but added that “there has not been any substantive disagreement on these issues.”

He explained that it was necessary to convert the “conceptual map” into a “detailed rendering” so Israel could “apply its laws in a precise manner and the US could recognise such application.”

In a message directed at the settlers, Friedman added: “I think the residents of Judea and Samaria would want Israel to get those [details] right.”

Friedman later told a right-wing think-tank in Jerusalem that, while Israel, as a sovereign state, can do what it wants, if Trump’s “position is simply ignored, then we are not going to be in a position to go forward” with the plan.

This delay on annexation put Netanyahu in a political quandary. He certainly wanted to extend sovereignty in these areas ahead of the March 2 Israeli election to solidify his support among the Israeli right wing, especially the settler community, but he did not want to go against the US president who has done him many political favours, especially after calling Trump “the greatest friend Israel has ever had in the White House.”

In the end, Netanyahu made the political calculation that it would hurt him more than help him if he defied the White House on the timing of annexation. Speaking February 10 at a tree-planting ceremony at a Jordan Valley settlement, he said: “We will do this [annexation] with the agreement with the Americans because what we are doing is not unilateral.”

While this episode showed that the Trump team can exert pressure on Israel when it needs to, it has done nothing to assuage the concerns of the Palestinians.

First is the obvious omission of Palestinian input in the overall peace plan, not to mention the bilateral committee that is working on details of the map of the West Bank. This was brought home to the Palestinians February 10 when Netanyahu stated clearly at the tree planting ceremony in the Jordan Valley that Trump’s plan to recognise Israeli sovereignty in these areas “does not depend on the agreement with the Palestinians.”

In addition, Kushner has accused the Palestinian Authority, which rejected the Trump peace plan, of inciting violence. He charged that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “calls for a day of rage in response [to the peace plan] and he said that even before he saw the plan.”

This comment provoked an angry response from Palestine Liberation Organisation Secretary-General Saeb Erekat, who said that “those who introduce plans for annexation and… the legalisation of occupation and settlements are the ones who bear full responsibility for deepening the cycle of violence and extremism.”

Moreover, in the Trump budget proposal for the fiscal year 2021, the US president is trying to zero out funding for the Palestinian Authority, only dangling $25 million within a new “Diplomatic Progress Fund” that could possibly go to Palestinian security forces if “there is progress on a plan for Middle East peace.” This is undoubtedly insulting to the Palestinians.

Hence, while the Trump team is trying to slow down Israeli annexation plans, it is shooting itself in the foot by continuing to disparage and alienate the Palestinians.