WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented on Sunday a case for Israeli unilateral annexation of settlements in the West Bank in a speech at a virtual conference of the Christians United for Israel organization. Speaking about the religious significance of biblical sites in the West Bank, Netanyahu praised U.S. President Donald Trump for presenting a Middle East plan that allows Israel to annex these territories, which have been under military occupation since 1967.
Netanyahu told the CUFI attendees, who are mainly Evangelical Christians who support Israel, that settlements like Bet El and Shiloh ‒ both of which are named after places that appear in the Bible ‒ are “an integral part of the historic Jewish homeland.” He added that Israel should annex the area known as Judea, south of Jerusalem, since “we’re called Jews because we’re the people of Judea.”
In a direct appeal to the Christian crowd, Netanyahu said that “these places are also an integral part of Christian identity, part of your heritage and of our common civilization.” He added that “under Israeli sovereignty, this heritage will be forever protected.” He once again praised the Trump administration for its Middle East peace plan, which allows Israel to annex as much as 30 percent of the West Bank. Critics see this move as the end of the possibility of a two state solution.
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Netanyahu, however, used his speech to “encourage the Palestinians not to waste another opportunity” and to open negotiations with Israel. He also said that “applying Israeli law to areas of Judea and Samaria that will remain part of Israel in any future peace deal, will not set back the cause of peace. It will advance peace.”
The prime minister's speech comes amid discussions between senior Israeli and American officials regarding unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank. The Trump administration is expected to give Israel a green light to go ahead with annexation, but the scope and timeline has yet to be determined.
Earlier this year, ahead of Israel’s March 2 election, Netanyahu and American Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said that Israel would immediately annex all settlements in the West Bank. That move, however, was blocked by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who led the administration’s work on the Middle East plan.
Current discussions between the two countries involve not only Netanyahu, Kushner and Friedman, but also Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, who opposes annexation on the scale proposed by Netanyahu and Friedman. Gantz has stated that he will only support annexation if it is done in coordination with Israel’s neighbors and with its European allies.
Gantz and his main political partner, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, could end up supporting a more limited annexation move, which would include several settlements in the vicinity of Jerusalem. But it’s not clear if such a move will be sufficient for Netanyahu, who has created very high expectations among the religious right-wing in Israel regarding annexation.
The Trump administration would prefer to green light annexation with a broad internal Israeli consensus involving both Gantz and Netanyahu. However, administration officials have said in private conversations that Gantz does not have a veto on the subject, and that his opposition will not be a deciding factor.
Gantz also sent a speech to the CUFI event, which was held virtually this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Like Netanyahu, he praised Trump’s Middle East plan, but he did not speak directly about annexation. Gantz also called on the Palestinians to reengage in direct negotiations with Israel over the plan.
Two senior American officials who are involved in the discussions on annexation ‒ Friedman and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ‒ are scheduled to speak at the event on Monday night. It’s unclear at the moment if they will speak about annexation. Friedman is currently in Israel together with Avi Berkowitz, Kushner’s close adviser who has taken over the Middle East file, for meetings with Netanyahu and Gantz. The administration hopes to finalize its policy on the issue within the next week or two.