Israel Is Eager To Annex West Bank Lands, But U.S. Says To Wait
President Trump's Mideast peace plan was expected to help Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instantly fulfill a campaign promise to annex occupied land that Israelis and Palestinians have fought over for more than half a century.
But it didn't go as Netanyahu had hoped.
Trump's plan, announced on Jan. 28, would eventually give major swaths of the West Bank to Israel, but the administration offered a mixed message about the timing. Trump seemed to suggest annexation could happen immediately, while U.S. officials later advised Israel not to annex any land before Israeli elections on March 2.
Now, Netanyahu is lobbying the White House for a compromise, according to the leader of Israel's movement of hundreds of thousands of West Bank settlers.
David Alhayani, chairman of the Yesha Council, the top settler leadership organization, tells NPR that the prime minister is seeking the Trump administration's blessing for Israel to claim at least one settlement or area before Israelis go to the polls.
"Something. One step," says Alhayani, who meets regularly with Netanyahu and supports his right-wing Likud party. "If not, I'm afraid we will lose the election."
The White House had no comment. Netanyahu's office would not confirm any such lobbying efforts. "It's too soon to tell what the final outcome and timeline will be" of Trump's peace plan, says Evan Gary Cohen, the prime minister's international media adviser.
Hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers live on land Israel captured in 1967. Palestinian leaders and most countries consider the settlements illegal. Last November, the Trump administration reversed decades of U.S. policy announcing it no longer considered Israeli settlements in the West Bank a violation of international law.
The Jordan Valley, where Alhayani lives and works, would be a strategic spot for Israel, near the border with Jordan and filled with chalky desert mountains and palm trees full of medjool dates. Annexing this land would be an explosive move that Palestinians see as killing off their quest for a state of their own.
The Trump Mideast plan envisions about 30% of the West Bank — including all Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley — becoming part of Israel. Israel also would get to keep most of east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians demand for their future capital. It also proposes a Palestinian state comprising a disjointed patchwork of lands connected by roads, bridges and tunnels. The plan drew a strong rebuke from Palestinians. A recent poll said 94% of Palestinians reject the Trump plan.
Though the plan tilts heavily in Israel's favor, and Netanyahu has enthusiastically endorsed it, it has met with mixed reactions by Netanyahu's supporters in Israel. Some Israelis have even called for him to ditch it.
The day before Trump presented the initiative, Netanyahu huddled with Israeli settler leaders at the U.S. presidential guest house across from the White House. He had just met with Trump earlier that day, and sought to rally the settlers' support for Trump's plan.
Netanyahu said Trump would allow Israel to declare immediate sovereignty over large parts of the West Bank. (Israeli and U.S. officials avoid calling it "annexation"; instead they describe it as recognizing Israel's "sovereignty" over areas it captured in 1967.)
"I never saw him so excited," says Alhayani, who was at the meeting. "I told him, 'Prime Minister, when it will be?' He said to me, 'David, maybe tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow.' "
The other half of the plan was harder for them to swallow: the eventual formation of a Palestinian state, even if Israel would get security and border control over it. Most of Netanyahu's own party and political supporters oppose any kind of Palestinian state. Alhayani says such a state would leave Israel exposed to attacks and threaten its existence.
"We can't take any more risks because we [endured] the Holocaust," Alhayani says. "I told him, 'Prime Minister Netanyahu, a plan that will bring a Palestinian state — you have to take the plan and throw it in the garbage.'"
The following day at the White House, standing beside Netanyahu, Trump said U.S. and Israeli officials would map out the areas Israel would annex so the U.S. could recognize it "immediately." U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said Israel did not need to wait, and Netanyahu's spokesman tweeted that annexation would be brought to a vote quickly in the Israeli Cabinet.
Then the spokesman deleted the tweet, as presidential adviser Jared Kushner said in an interview with analyst Ian Bremmer that Israel would be expected to wait until the mapping process is complete and a new Israeli government is in place following March elections.
Ambassador Friedman recently tweeted: "Any unilateral action in advance of the completion of the committee process endangers the Plan & American recognition."
Kushner, in charge of developing the Mideast peace plan, may have sensed an immediate annexation would jeopardize his efforts to rally Arab states' support for the initiative and their help bringing Palestinian leaders to the negotiating table.
"[Kushner] understands that an immediate move by Israel to annex these territories will pretty much strangle those efforts to recruit Arab support in the crib," says former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. "That left Netanyahu a little bit hung out to dry, but he had to make an adjustment to this now more definitive U.S. position."
Another calculation: Israeli domestic politics. Israel had two inconclusive elections in the past year. Netanyahu is neck and neck with a centrist rival, former army general Benny Gantz — who says he does not want to rush into annexation.
"Trump would not have rolled this plan out when he did if he didn't think it would provide some benefit to Netanyahu. But it was also clear ... that he can't be sure Netanyahu is actually going to remain prime minister," Shapiro says.
Settler leader Alhayani accuses Kushner of sabotage for holding back annexation moves.
"Don't take a knife and put it in the back of Netanyahu. Maybe Netanyahu will lose the election because of that," says Alhayani.
Annexation is Netanyahu's central election pledge to his right-wing and settler supporters. Now many settlers fear it may never happen.
Last week, hundreds of young religious Jewish settlers rallied outside the prime minister's residence, chanting "sovereignty now," and demanding he ignore the White House and declare Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank immediately.
Even as they insisted on urgency, the demonstrators took the long view on their quest to cement their grip over the disputed West Bank. They sang a favorite religious chant in Hebrew: "The eternal people aren't afraid — aren't afraid of a long road."
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