Friedman: Unilateral Israeli Action Risks Losing U.S. Support for Annexation

Ambassador says 'unilateral action in advance of the completion of the committee process endangers' Trump's peace plan

Haaretz
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U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman attends a conference in Jerusalem January 8, 2020
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman attends a conference in Jerusalem January 8, 2020Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS
Haaretz

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said on Sunday any "unilateral action" by Israel to annex parts of the West Bank ahead of the completion of a process highlighted in the Trump administration's Mideast peace plan would result in the withdrawal of American support for Israeli sovereignty on West Bank settlements.

Netanyahu's 'annexation nation' is ready to strike again. ListenCredit: Haaretz Weekly Ep. 60

"The application of Israeli law to the territory which the Plan provides to be part of Israel is subject to the completion a mapping process by a joint Israeli-American committee," Friedman tweeted on Sunday morning, adding that "unilateral action in advance of the completion of the committee process endangers the Plan & American recognition."

Friedman, who is a major donor and supporter of the settlement enterprise, was reported to have been a driving force behind the efforts of the current Israeli administration to push for annexation before the March 2 election.

Netanyahu, who is fighting an uphill electoral battle in Israel's third election contest in one year, cannot do without the support of the religious right, which sees the whole of the West Bank - known in Israel as Judea and Samaria - as an indivisible part of the country. 

Last month U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his administration's long-awaited Middle East peace proposal, which would allow Israel to annex all its West Bank settlements — which the Palestinians and most of the international community view as illegal — as well as the Jordan Valley, which accounts for roughly a quarter of the West Bank.

The plan is seen by the Palestinians and most international actors as biased in favor of Israel, mostly because the resulting Palestinian entity will not be given the necessary means of statehood, including control over its own borders and security. It also features complex land swaps and illusive territorial contiguity.  

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has portrayed the plan, and his personal relationship with the Trump administration, as a major achievement and a convincing reason to keep him in power. But his rival, Benny Gantz, whose centrist Kahol Lavan party has been gaining in the polls, has also come out in favor of annexation, embracing a more moderate position.

The Yesha Council of Jewish Settlements in the West Bank is considering how to continue their fight for annexation. Speaking to Haaretz, the Council's Chairman David Alhaini said Sunday that the U.S. is sending mixed messages on annexation, referring to Friedman's statement. Alhaini stressed that Netanyahu must fulfill his promise to annex before the election.

Alhaini added that after Trump's conceptual map was published, the settler leadership prepared its own map based on the Trump plan with ammendments. According to Alhaini, this map has been ready for several weeks and the Prime Minister's Office refused to see it.

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The head of the Shomron Regional Council urged Netanyahu to not prolong the decision and present an annexation plan to the government as soon as possible. "I greatly respect Ambassador Friedman, we greatly appreciate him and his work, but with all due respect, our Prime Minister is Benjamin Netanyahu, not David Friedman."

The head of Efrat Regional Council and foreign affairs minister on the board of the Yesha Council, Oded Revivi, said that Friedman's message is "a wake-up call to all of us, this is the time to sit and determine Israel's future borders."

"Ambassador Friedman assumes on behalf of the U.S. government a rare opportunity to sit down with the Americans, to have a discussion within us and through a selected government to determine what Israel's borders are … I call on my partners in the settler leadership to work together with the prime minister and address the Americans with one voice, when we know what we want to achieve," said Revivi.

Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, said in an interview released in January that he hopes Israel will not annex West Bank settlements before the upcoming election. Kushner said the United States is preparing to discuss the technical details of annexation with Israel, but that this discussion "will take time."

Kushner spoke with Gzero Media, a website focused on global affairs. In response to a question about Netanyahu's announcement that he will bring annexation to a governmental vote as soon as possible, Kushner said, "Let's see what happens. The hope is that they'll wait until after the election."

The administration will start work on the technical aspects of the "deal of the century," Kushner said, but "we'd need an Israeli government in place" in order to advance, rather than the Netanyahu-led interim government that does not form a Knesset majority.

There has been a slow but steady escalation in tensions between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank since the unveiling of the initiative. The Palestinian leadership, finding elusive unity, is planning to cut security ties with Israel, while an ongoing trade dispute puts increasing pressure on the Palestinian economy.

One Palestinian was killed and dozens wounded in clashes with Israeli troops since last week. Seventeen-year-old Mohammad Salman Toameh Al-Hadad was shot in the chest with live fire in Hebron on Monday and later died of his wounds. Last week, soldiers also shot and severely wounded a 15-year-old Palestinian in the head with a rubber bullet during clashes in the northern West Bank town of Kafr Qaddum. 

Israel bolstered its security presence in the West Bank and Jerusalem after three separate alleged terrorist attacks injured 14 soldiers on Thursday. Twelve were wounded, one seriously, in a car-ramming attack in Jerusalem, with the suspect, identified as Sanad Al Tarman, 24, in custody. In a separate incident, a Haifa resident, 45-year-old Shadi Bana, shot and injured a Border Police officer near Lion's Gate outside Jerusalem's Old City. He was shot and killed after attempting to flee the scene. A conscript was also lightly wounded by gunfire near the Israeli West Bank settlement of Dolev after reportedly being shot by a passing car.

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