Nathan Schmidt / Bethlehem
White House spokesman Josh Raffel on Monday rebuked claims by Prime Minister Netanyahu that he had discussed with the Trump administration plans to annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank, adding to existing pressure placed on the PM by the Knesset concerning the issue.
‘Reports that the United States discussed with Israel an annexation plan for the West Bank are false,’ Raffel said. ‘The United States and Israel have never discussed such a proposal, and the president’s focus remains squarely on his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.’
Before members of the right-wing Likud party on Monday, Prime Minister Netanyahu had claimed to have been in discussion with the Trump administration regarding the issue of Israeli sovereignty over its settlements in the occupied territories ‘for some time’.
‘Regarding the issue of applying sovereignty, I can tell you that I have for some time been speaking with the Americans about it,’ Netanyahu had said.
On Tuesday the twitter account for the office of the PM released a statement contradicting Netanyahu’s remarks, stating that ‘Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu updated the Americans on the initiatives being raised in the Knesset,’ and ‘the Americans expressed their unequivocal position that they are committed to advancing President Trump’s peace plan.’
The statement reaffirmed that the United States is pursuing its own peace plan under its envoy to the Middle East, Jarrad Kushner, as opposed to any plans for annexation being pursued in the Knesset and that they were not willing to endorse any such plan at the time.
On Sunday, in an interview published by Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom, President Donald Trump criticised the policy of settlement building in the occupied territories as complicating the peace process.
“The settlements are something that very much complicates, and always have complicated, making peace, so I think Israel has to be very careful with the settlements,” President Trump said.
Following the decision by the Donald Trump administration to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December, Prime Minister Netanyahu has faced mounting pressure from right-wing members of the Knesset, including the right-wing coalition from which his government was formed and the Likud party which he leads.
On Sunday, Netanyahu blocked the passage of a private members bill drawn up by Education Member Naftali Bennett concerning the annexation of Israeli settlements such as Ariel and Maaleh Adumim.
The bill was shelved by Netanyahu due to the ‘security issues’ in the north of Israel on Sunday after an Israel jet fighter was shot down by Syrian anti-air fire, and because of ‘discussions with the Americans,’ Bennett said in an interview with KAN Radio.
‘I agreed to hold off because of the security situation, but wanted to hear more about the situation with Washington. I maintain the right to raise it again next Sunday.’
An earlier bill concerning annexation had also been again shelved last week.
The bill was drawn up by Yoav Kish of the Likud party and Betzalel Smotrich of Habayit Hayehudi and received unanimous support from the right-wing coalition.
Under the bill, “The law, jurisdiction, administration and sovereignty of the State of Israel will apply to all areas of settlement in Judea and Samaria.”
Kish called on Netanyahu to approve the passage of the bill, saying ‘Mr. Prime Minister, the time has come. The Likud Central Committee approved this, all the parties in the coalition are in favour of it. Give the green light to move forward in order to get to a much better place in sovereignty over our country’.
Kish had previously expressed assuredness that the bill would pass when it was first introduced in January.
‘The Prime Minister also backs this process (for applying sovereignty). It’s only a question of the timing. I think that Pence’s visit has strengthened the feeling that this is the right time, that this is the time to apply sovereignty. We’re at a historic juncture.’
Right-wing members of the Knesset appear to have been emboldened by the recent shift in U.S. policy under President Trump, including the recognition of Jerusalem and the recent visit by Vice President Mike Pence during which the VP did not engage the Palestinian Authority.
The Trump Administration claim that the PA refused to meet with Pence, though these allegations have been refuted by spokesmen for the PA.
The possible ‘deal of century’ – the Trump administrations peace plan for the Middle East, was reportedly leaked last week to pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat.
The plan would see the creation of a new ‘holy city’ for Palestinians on the outskirts of West Jerusalem. The Old City and surrounding neighbourhoods would fall under the jurisdiction of the proposed new Palestinian state and its capital, with those Palestinians left in Israeli East Jerusalem being transferred to the new city.
The new Palestinian state would assume over half of the current West Bank and the entirety of the Gaza Strip. Israel would annex its settlements and continue to administer to them, including servicing security and infrastructure.
Reporting for Al-Monitor, Mohammed Othman claimed the ‘leak’ was a measure by which the U.S. could gauge the reaction of the Palestinian public to its proposed peace process ahead of any finalised program.
‘The leaks evidently consist of trial balloons to learn how much the Palestinians are against the plan,’ Othman reported.
The reported plan also drew ire in the Knesset as many within the right-wing coalition oppose to the creation of a future Palestine state regardless of its borders or security concessions to Israel.
Naftali Bennet, Education Minister and sponsor of the aforementioned private members bill declared upon Trump decision last December that, ‘Trump’s victory is an opportunity for Israel to immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state in the centre of the country, which would hurt our security and just cause. This is the position of the president-elect … The era of a Palestinian state is over.’