WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is planning to visit Israel next week, while Jerusalem steps up talks about unilateral annexation of West Bank settlements, Channel 13 News reported on Wednesday.
The trip is yet to be formally announced, but the report came on the same day that U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman declared that Israel could soon annex the settlements.
Earlier on Wednesday, Friedman told the Israel Hayom daily that the Trump administration is ready to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank “within weeks.” Friedman added that one condition for such a move would be an agreement between the next Israeli government and the Palestinians to hold negotiations over the American Middle East peace plan, which was unveiled on January 28, ahead of Israel's March 2 election.
Pompeo and Friedman – both of whom have strong ties to religious right-wing groups in Israel and the United States that oppose Palestinian statehood – have advanced similar moves in the past, such as Pompeo’s announcement in November that Washington no longer considers the settlements illegal under international law.
Knesset Speaker Benny Gantz, who is still holding negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a government, has so far rejected the annexation plan presented by Netanyahu and Friedman, which calls for annexing all West Bank settlements.
Instead, he has supported more limited action, such as annexing particular settlements and doing so in coordination with Israel’s neighbors and allies in the Middle East and Europe.
Friedman’s remarks, which contradict Gantz’s current stance on the settlements issue, have led to mixed reactions from the settler movement. His pledge to apply Israeli sovereignty to the settlements was welcomed, but the fact that he mentioned certain U.S. conditions, including Israeli acceptance of some form of Palestinian statehood, was frowned upon.
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Friedman already promised immediate American recognition of Israeli unilateral annexation several months ago, after President Donald Trump presented his “deal of the century” at a joint press conference at the White House alongside Netanyahu, who said Israel would be willing to use it as the basis for immediate negotiations with the Palestinians.
But Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, said in an interview released after the plan was unveiled that he hoped Israel would not annex settlements before the March 2 election.
Kushner said the United States was preparing to discuss the technical details of annexation with Israel, but that this discussion "will take time." Kushner has been leading the administration’s Middle East efforts for the past three years.
His statements countered those of Friedman and Netanyahu, who had promised Israeli journalists in a briefing after the prime minister's appearance with Trump at the White House that the settlements would be swiftly annexed. When Kushner was asked whether the Trump administration would support an immediate annexation measure, Kushner said, "No, we've agreed with them on forming a technical team to start studying the maps."