WASHINGTON – The largest pro-Israel evangelical organization in the United States will hold its annual conference this week, amidst growing talk of Israeli annexation of parts of the Jordan Valley in both Jerusalem and Washington. Christians United for Israel, which has a millions-strong membership in the United States, will hold a virtual conference this year in light of the coronavirus crisis.
The organization’s founder, pastor John Hagee, published an article in Haaretz last week urging the Trump administration to continue advancing its peace plan for the middle east, which includes Israeli annexation of up to 30 percent of the West Bank. The Trump administration is currently deliberating whether to give Israel a “green light” on annexation, and the extent of the annexation it will approve.
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The virtual conference will include remote addresses by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, as well as by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. All four are deeply involved in annexation discussions taking place between Israel and the U.S., which have so far not led to any finalized decision on either side.
Christians United for Israel expressed its support for the entirety of Trump’s peace plan in January, and a spokesperson for the organization told Haaretz earlier this month that the group maintains this position. The U.S. plan includes not only Israeli annexation of West Bank settlements, but also land swaps between Israel and a future Palestinian state, an idea that is rejected by some in the Israeli right.
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One idea currently being discussed by senior Israeli and American officials is a gradual annexation process, which would include several installments. The first installment, under the proposed plan, would take place within the next few weeks, and would include specific settlements in the vicinity of Jerusalem. The next installments would be planed for a later date, probably only after the November presidential election in the United States. This would mean that the second installment of the plan would only take place if Trump were to win a second term in office.
This weekend, Friedman and Avi Berkowitz, the White House official leading Trump’s peace plan, arrived in Israel in order to continue discussing the difference options with Netanyahu and Gantz. The U.S. administration hopes to find an annexation formula that will be accepted by both leaders, although opposition from Gantz is not seen as a “deal breaker” inside the White House.
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Gantz wrote on Friday that he will only support annexation if it is part of a broader diplomatic move and if Palestinians living in the annexed territories will receive full rights in Israel. He has stated previously that his condition for supporting annexation is that it occur not just in coordination with the United States, but also with Israel’s Arab and European allies.
This position makes widespread annexation, as detailed in the Trump plan, unlikely to receive Gantz’s support, but the alternate prime minister may support a more limited move. He and his main partner in the government, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, are both retired IDF generals with decades of experience in the Palestinian arena. Both of them officially support a two-state solution and have called to renew negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Gantz, however, said last week that Israel will not wait for the Palestinians regarding annexation, and that the Palestinian leadership is in “deep shit” at the moment.
Netanyahu has spoken many times at Christians United for Israel events. Last year, he told the organization’s supporters in a video message that Israel has no better friends than evangelical Christians. For Gantz, this year's conference will mark his first appearance as a political leader at the event.