Occupied Jerusalem: When President Donald Trump’s Middle East team meets this week to hash out what to do about Israel’s planned annexation of occupied territory in the West Bank, a fundamental question will hover overhead: Is the prospect of annexation a pressure tactic to get the Palestinians to engage with the administration’s peace plan, or is the peace plan just a smoke screen for annexation?
US and Israeli officials are deeply divided on the question, an issue that could determine how and when any annexation proceeds.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to annex up to 30 per cent of the occupied West Bank - as mapped out in the Trump peace plan - as soon as July 1. And he is counting on the Trump administration’s backing, since most of the world views existing Jewish colonies on the West Bank as illegal and would treat any unilateral annexation as a flagrant violation of international law.
But the administration has sent mixed signals, initially greenlighting annexation, then putting the brakes on, and now, apparently, reconsidering the move in White House meetings set to begin Tuesday.
While both American and Israeli officials support annexation in principle, the White House encouragement came in the context of its plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Netanyahu has distanced himself from some parts of the plan, which also calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state and the freezing of any expansion of Israeli colonies. Those conditions are anathema to the right-wing Israeli colonists who Netanyahu sought to woo with annexation in the first place.
The administration has insisted that Netanyahu obtain the consent of his centrist coalition partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, for any annexation. Gantz, who is on record opposing unilateral annexation, says he will not agree to it without the acquiescence of the king of Jordan. The king, Abdullah II, has warned of a “massive conflict” with Israel if it proceeds.
Gantz has also insisted that any annexation occur only as an integral part of the Trump administration’s peace plan, which he says he supports in full, not in part.
For anything to happen, someone will have to budge.
“We see the contradictions,” said Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. “We don’t yet see how they will be resolved.”
Resolving them, Israeli and US officials say, requires resolving a difference of opinion between two close confidants of the president: Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and David M. Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, who was Trump’s longtime bankruptcy lawyer.
Kushner was lead author of the Trump peace plan, and is said to believe it a viable way to resolve the long-running conflict and potentially reshape the Middle East.
Friedman, a generous donor to the Israeli colony enterprise before entering government and who played a key role in reversing a long-standing US policy treating the colonies as illegal, has let it be known that he is more invested in annexation than in the peace plan.
Kushner’s strategy for getting the Palestinians to engage on the plan involves using the threat of annexation as leverage, officials say. Unilateral annexation would remove that leverage.
For Friedman, delaying annexation risks missing out on it altogether if Trump does not win reelection.
Free to annex
The split between the two surfaced only hours after Trump, with Netanyahu beside him, announced his peace plan at the White House in January. Friedman and Netanyahu both assured Israeli reporters afterward that Israel was free to annex West Bank land immediately. But Kushner quickly said that Israel needed to wait, at least until it formed a new government.
Administration officials play down the split and insist the two simply hold different positions on the same team: Friedman’s brief is limited to Israel and the Palestinians, while Kushner’s responsibilities include the broader Middle East as well as the Trump reelection campaign.
But Friedman’s haste, other officials say, aligns him more closely with Netanyahu and the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, who are pressing to move quickly on annexation.
Nowhere are the differences between Friedman and Kushner clearer, officials say, than over the timing of annexation.
Netanyahu and his allies are pressing for haste by saying the Trump administration amounts to a “golden opportunity” for US approval that would disappear if Joe Biden, who opposes unilateral annexation, defeats Trump in November.
But analysts and officials note that this view puts Friedman in the position of hedging against his boss’ becoming a one-term president.
“It’s wanting to take advantage of what the Trump presidency offers with very low expectations about the Trump presidency,” said Dennis B. Ross, a veteran peace negotiator under Republican and Democratic presidents. “It’s actually quite remarkable.”
Last week, Friedman tried, and failed, to mediate between Netanyahu and Gantz. At one point, officials said, he was kept waiting on a couch for several hours while Netanyahu and Gantz haggled over other subjects behind closed doors.
Friedman’s intervention was widely interpreted in Israel as an attempt to pressure Gantz.
The White House discussions Tuesday are expected to include Kushner, Friedman, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien, Vice President Mike Pence and possibly Trump. According to senior US and Israeli officials, the administration may weigh options including a very limited annexation to win Gantz’s approval, or letting Netanyahu go ahead without Gantz’s agreement, and what the Palestinians could be offered to mollify them.
It also could decide that a unilateral Israeli move, and the resulting furore - including a possible flare-up of violence between Israelis and Palestinians - are unwelcome headaches for a president already facing tumultuous domestic problems and a difficult reelection campaign.
Officials were loath to make any predictions about where the discussions might end up, particularly given the president’s unpredictability. “If Trump doesn’t see a big electoral benefit, he might just say, ‘Too messy, too complicated, I’ll deal with it if I’m reelected,’” said David Makovsky, a former peace negotiator now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Netanyahu’s dual messaging has embodied the split over what annexation represents.
In Israel, he and his closest allies insist that two pillars of the Trump plan - a Palestinian state and a four-year freeze of construction in the colonies - are not in the offing.
But Netanyahu’s ambassador to the United States, Dermer, wrote in The Washington Post on Saturday that annexation would “open the door to a realistic two-state solution” under the Trump plan.
Another Netanyahu confidant, lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, said the key word was “realistic.”
“We don’t care if you call it a state-minus or autonomy-plus, as long as you understand that it’s not really sovereign,” Hanegbi said.
But Ross suggested that Kushner might draw a different conclusion. “What it probably says to Jared is, ‘For Bibi and company right now, this is just an annexation plan,’” he said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “’And that’s not what we put out.’”