WASHINGTON – U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said Wednesday the American peace plan to redraw Israel's borders would include a "joint committee" to consider the question of immediately annexing West Bank settlements to Israel, though the plan is "the furthest thing possible from apartheid."
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Speaking in a briefing for journalists, Friedman did not offer clarity on the question of whether Israel could begin annexation next week.
Friedman described an "agreement" between the U.S. and Israel to create a committee that will "convert the map" that the administration published Tuesday into reality. Once the Israeli government approves Trump's plan, Friedman said, "it will work with due deliberation to get to the right spot." He did not offer a timeline for the work of this committee.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Netanyahu said publicly that his government would annex all Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Friedman said shortly thereafter that Israel was free to begin annexation whenever it wanted. But hours later, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, said that he "doesn't believe" such annexation would take place immediately.
Hours after Kushner's comments, the Israeli government vote on annexation, which was supposed to take place on Sunday, was postponed. However, Netanyahu's associates said he was still planning to hold such a vote as soon as next week.
This was also contested by Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, a member of Netanyahu's party who was with him in Washington. He said the reason for the delay was technical, and explained that bringing the proposal to a vote “requires time to prepare and work on the different documents,” and that Netanyahu needs the attorney general's legal opinion on the matter.
Friedman said that annexation will be "a process that requires an effort, we need to see the dimensions."
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Another issue that was discussed during Friedman's briefing was the status-quo on Temple Mount, the holiest place for the Jewish people and the third most important religious site in Islam. The so-called "Deal of the Century" calls to maintain the status-quo, but on the other hand, suggests a massive change – allowing Jewish worshipers to pray in the Temple Mount compound. Jordan, which has a special standing in Temple Mount according to its peace treaty with Israel, is opposed to Jews praying in the compound.
The Temple Mount status quo sometimes shifts, but in practice the complex has been closed over the past few years during Muslim holidays.
However, Temple Mount activists and Israeli right-wing politicians have put pressure on the police in recent years, making it challenging for them to close the Mount on Jerusalem Day and Tisha B'Av.
In 2019 the police opened the premises to Jews on Jerusalem Day, which resulted in a mass demonstration and clashes between Jews and Palestinians on the Mount.
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Friedman said that "the status quo will remain" and that any alterations to it "are subject to agreement of all the parties. Don’t expect to see anything different in the near future or at all." He added that the U.S. administration wants to see "religious freedom" in the Middle East, but that any change to the status-quo has to come through an agreement of all parties.
The ambassador rejected the comparisons between the administration's plan and the Bantustans of the Apartheid regime in South Africa – isolated areas of limited self-governance for South Africa's black population. Friedman said that Trump's plan is "the farthest thing possible from apartheid" and added that the United States will "never support any form of apartheid."
When asked about a clause in the plan that deals with the idea of turning tens of thousands of Israel's citizens into citizens of a future Palestinian state, Friedman said: "The idea was to align territorially the populations; we're trying to create a Jewish nation state and a Palestinian nation state."
Friedman added that "no one is being stripped of citizenship," although the plan explicitly says that residents of the "Triangle Villages" in Israel could find themselves living in a Palestinian state, and that their civil rights will be administered by the laws of that state.
Following Trump’s presentation of the peace plan on Tuesday, Netanyahu said that Israel had won American recognition for applying Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements, including in the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea area. Netanyahu's remarks explicitly implied that settlement annexation would take place after the establishment of the special committee. However, when Netanyahu spoke to reporters after the official presentation of the plan, he changed his tune.
Noa Landau contributed to this report.