Palestinians gather on January 31 outside a village near the West Bank city of Ramallah to protest against the US peace proposal unveiled in Washington this week. (Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images)

Debate Raging Among Israelis over Immediate Annexation in West Bank

Some see unveiling of decidedly pro-Israel US peace plan as perfect opportunity, while others see caretaker government as lacking necessary teeth

A debate is raging in Israel over the wisdom of immediately applying sovereignty to regions claimed by the Palestinians.

Some Israelis see this past Tuesday’s unveiling of the Trump Administration’s long-delayed Middle East peace plan as a perfect opportunity, with the speaker of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, vowing to “fast-track” any bill on annexing the Jordan Valley and all Jewish communities located in the West Bank.

“If you [Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu] return from Washington and ask to convene the Knesset… to make use of the US administration’s historic willingness and apply Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, I will convene the [full] plenum immediately,” Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a senior member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said on Wednesday, using the biblical terms for the area encompassing the West Bank.

Immediately after the proposal’s release, Netanyahu himself promised to convene the cabinet this coming Sunday to vote on the matter.

Since then, the cabinet meeting was pushed back until mid-week for “technical” reasons. One of Netanyahu’s closest confidants also hinted that the Likud would ask the attorney-general to “consider” the matter before any final decision is made on a cabinet vote.

Other movers and shakers, however, point to the March 2 election and question whether a caretaker government can legally take such a bold step.

Dan Gillerman, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, told The Media Line this week that it would be “wise” to wait.

“Doing anything, especially very, very significant and historic changes, by a government which is not really the elected government of Israel is a mistake,” he said. “I think that we’ve [already] waited a very long time [to make drastic changes], and it would be wise to wait until there is an official, elected, democratic government in place to take these actions.”

There also seems to be confusion in Washington, as Jared Kushner – President Trump’s son-in-law, senior adviser and architect of the peace plan – told CNN on Tuesday that he was not aware of Netanyahu’s intention to quickly push through an annexation vote and possible legislation.

“The hope is that they’ll wait until after the election, and we’ll work with them to try to come up with something,” Kushner said in another interview Wednesday night. When asked point-blank whether the US administration would support Israel moving forward with annexation prior to the election, Kushner responded: “No.”

This came after the US ambassador to Israel on Wednesday walked back an assertion made the previous day that Jerusalem would be free to move forward as it chooses. Instead, David Friedman qualified that a not-yet-formed joint committee would first need to approve the parameters of any proposed annexation bill to ensure they coincide with the peace plan’s “conceptual map,” a process that both he and Kushner hinted could take months.

Friedman’s predecessor as ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, is far less supportive of the Trump Administration proposal, calling it “not very realistic” in terms of implementation.

“This plan looks like the result of a mediator, or a putative mediator, talking to only one side of the conflict,” he told The Media Line on Wednesday.

“Over the last two years, the Trump Administration has had no meaningful diplomatic contact with the Palestinian Authority, and has had extensive consultations with the Israeli side, and so most of the provisions [of the plan] are shaped to adhere to Israeli desires,” he explained.

Shapiro added that it is “very hard to imagine a Palestinian leader who will really be able to politically accept this plan. It would be seen as a full-scale surrender and maybe even a humiliation.”

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Palestinians, who rejected the proposal before it was even announced, were welcome to make a “counteroffer.”

According to Israel’s Channel 12, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sent a personal letter to Netanyahu warning against Israel’s annexation of large swaths of the West Bank.

The letter added that Israel’s acceptance of the contours of the peace plan as a basis for future negotiations is viewed by the PA as an abrogation of the 1993 Oslo Accords, thereby freeing the Palestinians to end their obligations under that agreement, including security cooperation with Israel.

On Wednesday, the Palestinian leader reportedly dispatched a senior official to meet with Israel’s finance minister. The official is said to have conveyed Ramallah’s extreme opposition to any unilateral moves by Jerusalem that would change the longstanding status quo.

Abbas has vowed to completely torpedo the US proposal, which he said would wind up in the “dustbin of history.”

He is slated to travel to Cairo for an Arab League meeting that will discuss a coordinated response to the US initiative. This follows the tacit, albeit cool, approval of the plan by the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Morocco, among other Arab states.

By contrast, Turkey and Iran have issued scathing criticisms of the plan, whereas Jordan – whose support is considered vital for there to be any chance at jump-starting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – has been conspicuously mum.

Abbas is also expected in the next two weeks to speak about the peace proposal at the United Nations Security Council in New York.

For his part, Netanyahu returned from Washington via Moscow, where he briefed President Vladimir Putin on details of the peace proposal, and secured the release of a jailed Israeli backpacker in a move that could give the Israeli prime minister an electoral boost.

According to the first Israeli opinion polls published after the release of the plan, the Likud appears to be gaining ground going into the March 2 election. Three separate surveys commissioned by Israeli television channels showed it inching to within one or two seats of its main rival, the centrist Blue and White list, a huge jump from previous polls that found a gap of up to six mandates.

In September’s inconclusive national vote, Blue and White, led by former military chief of staff Benny Gantz, garnered 33 seats to the Likud’s 32. Currently, they are polling at 34-35 seats and 33-34 seats, respectively, with Blue and White coming out on top in each survey.

Nevertheless, the latest polls predict that the general political gridlock gripping Israel for over a year will continue. Neither Netanyahu’s right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc, nor Gantz and his Center-Left allies, are forecasted to emerge in a clear position to form a 61-member majority coalition the day after the election.

Notably, these polls were conducted a day after Netanyahu was officially indicted in three criminal cases, perhaps suggesting that the electorate’s more immediate focus is on the prime minister’s effort to push through legislation to annex portions of the West Bank.

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