WASHINGTON – Three days of deliberations within the Trump administration over Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank ended on Thursday without a “final decision” on the matter, a U.S. official told Reuters on Thursday.
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"The meetings this week were productive," a White House official told Haaretz. "Ambassador Friedman is returning to Israel tonight with Special Envoy Avi Berkowitz and Mapping Committee member Scott Leith for further meetings and analysis. There is yet no final decision on next steps for implementing the Trump plan.”
The administration had been debating whether to give Israel a green light for annexation and under which conditions as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's July 1 deadline for beginning the annexation process approaches. There is a debate over the size of the territory that should be annexed and the timeline for the move.
On Wednesday, Kellyanne Conway, a top adviser to the president, told reporters that U.S. President Donald Trump will be making a "big announcement" soon on Netanyahu's annexation plans.
“There are conversations being had,” Conway was quoted as saying by U.S. media. “Obviously, the president will have an announcement. He’s talked about this in the past and I’ll leave it to him to give you a big announcement. Very happy those talks continue.”
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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier on Wednesday it was up to Israel to decide whether to annex settlements in the West Bank, as Netanyahu has vowed to do despite international opposition.
Also Wednesday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Israel to abandon the plan, warning it threatened prospects for peace with the Palestinians.
Under Trump's Mideast proposal unveiled in January and met with widespread skepticism, the United States would recognize the Jewish settlements – built on land the Palestinians seek for a state – as part of Israel.
The proposal would create a Palestinian state but impose strict conditions. Palestinian leaders have dismissed the initiative and it has gone nowhere.
Netanyahu intends to launch his project of extending sovereignty over settlements and the Jordan Valley, hoping for U.S. approval. Most countries view Israel's settlements as illegal, and the Palestinians have voiced outrage at annexation.
While criticizing Palestinian leaders on Wedneday for rejecting Trump's "vision for peace," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not provide any signs of where the administration stands on the specifics of Netanyahu's plan.
Pompeo was at the White House to join the discussions, and Trump could also take part, a U.S. official said.
Among the main options under U.S. consideration is a gradual, step-by-step process in which Israel would initially declare sovereignty over several settlements close to Jerusalem instead of the 30 percent of the West Bank envisaged in Netanyahu's original plan, according to a person close to matter.
There are several reasons why this option is gaining momentum in the administration’s internal deliberations.
It could diffuse some – even if not all – of the criticism that annexation has already sparked from America’s allies in the Middle East. In addition, the administration still hopes to present any move involving annexation as the product of a broad Israeli consensus rather than a politically motivated deal between Trump and Netanyahu.
The Trump administration has not closed the door to a larger annexation. But Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser is concerned that allowing Israel to move too fast could kill hopes of drawing the Palestinians into talks on the peace plan he mostly authored, the source said.
There are also concerns about opposition from Jordan, one of only two countries that have a peace treaty with Israel, and from Gulf states that have quietly expanded engagement with Israel. Washington has also made clear it wants Israel's unity government to reach a consensus on the matter.