White House Strongly Denies as 'False' Netanyahu's Claims of Talks With U.S. on Annexing West Bank Settlements

Netanyahu said he has been discussing Israeli annexation of West Bank settlements with Washington, but White House says 'Israel has never discussed such a proposal'

A playground in the Israeli settlement of Modi'in Illit in the West Bank, March 27, 2017.
\ Amir Cohen/ REUTERS

The White House denied as false claims by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday that he had spoken with the United States about a specified proposal regarding Israeli annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

"Reports that the United States discussed with Israel an annexation plan for the West Bank are false. The United States and Israel have never discussed such a proposal, and the president’s focus remains squarely on his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative," said Josh Raffel, a White House spokesman.

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Raffel is the spokesperson in charge of the media requests on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the White House, and is considered close to Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump's son-in-law who leads the Trump administration's peace initiative.

Netanyahu had said that for some time now, he has been "maintaining a dialogue with the Americans" about "the issue of expanding Israeli sovereignty" to the settlements. 

In response to Netanyahu's remarks, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' spokesman said that any unilateral move to apply Israeli sovereignty to the settlements would not alter the illegitimacy of Israel's settlement enterprise. 

According to the spokesman, any step taken in the direction of Israeli annexation of the settlements would lead to tension and instability. "We warn against such a move because it would destroy any international effort to save the peace process," he said.

The left-wing advocacy organization J Street released a statement in response to Netanyahu's claim in which it described the premier's overt contemplation of annexing the settlements as "beyond dangeorus." 

According to J Street's founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, applying Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements would "create a permanent one-state nightmare of escalating conflict and injustice." Ben-Ami called on U.S. officials to warn Israel that such a move would be "unacceptable" and said that "it would be completely irresponsible for the Trump administration to contemplate endorsing unilateral annexation in any way."

Following Netanyahu's remarks, a senior Israeli official clarified to Haaretz that Netanyahu "did not present the U.S. with any specific annexation proposal; the U.S. would have objected to such proposals anyway. Israel did update the U.S. with different legislative initiatives and the Trump administration reiterated its clear position of wanting to push forward with the U.S. president's peace plan."

Netanyahu's words caught the Trump administration by surprise and were not coordinated in any way with Washington. The U.S. administration asked Israel to issue a clarification in light of multiple reports that alleged an American acceptance of different annexation plans.

In response to the White House's request for a clarification, the Prime Minister's Office said that "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."

While Jerusalem and Washington were exchanging press releases, a Russian news agency reported that Trump spoke on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Putin is hosting Abbas in Moscow Monday, and he reportedly told him that Trump coveys "his best wishes" to the Palestinian leader, who has been boycotting the U.S. administration for two months now, ever since Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

A day earlier, Netanyahu blocked the advance of a bill to apply Israeli sovereignty to the settlements. The bill did not mention annexation of the West Bank, instead only referring to the settlements. The forum of coalition party leaders, which convened to decide whether to support the bill, unanimously agreed to postpone the debate because of the recent flare-up in the north. 

Political forces on the Israeli right who were pushing the legislation are closely following Monday's developments. Sources close to Education Minister Naftali Bennet said that he has taken a "strategic decision to advance sovereignty," adding that he will take into account its timing and scope.

According to Netanyahu, Israel has to avoid steps liable to embarrass the United States so as to reach understandings with the international community. In an interview with the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom newspaper published on Sunday, Trump expressed his doubts that Israel and the Palestinians are committed to reaching peace.

"Right now, I would say the Palestinians are not looking to make peace, they are not looking to make peace. And I am not necessarily sure that Israel is looking to make peace," Trump said. He added that the settlements "always have complicated making peace," and warned that "Israel has to be very careful with the settlements." 

Netanyahu has used these arguments several times over the past few months in order to postpone various bills relating to annexing territories, among them the bill to annex Ma’aleh Adumim and a bill that would bring the settlements surrounding Jerusalem under the city’s jurisdiction.