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Mixed Signals on Israeli Annexation Reflect Split Among White House Officials

U.S. and Israeli officials are divided on whether annexation is a means to
get Palestinians to the table, or whether the peace plan is a means to get
annexation.


https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/22/world/middleeast/israel-annexation-trump-
kushner.html


When President Trump announced his peace plan in January, Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was free to annex West Bank land immediately.
When President Trump announced his peace plan in January, Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was free to annex West Bank land immediately.
Credit...Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times
David M. HalbfingerMichael Crowley
By David M. Halbfinger and Michael Crowley
Published June 22, 2020
Updated June 23, 2020, 4:20 a.m. ET

JERUSALEM — When President Trump’s Middle East team meets this week to hash
out what to do about Israel’s planned annexation of 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 smokescreen for
annexation?

American 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 percent 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 settlements 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 on Tuesday.

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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.

Mr. 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 settlements in the areas slated for that state. Those
conditions are anathema to the right-wing Israeli settlers whom Mr.
Netanyahu sought to woo with annexation in the first place.


ImageThe Trump peace plan envisaged Israel keep all existing West Bank
settlements, like Ramat Givat Zeev.
The Trump peace plan envisaged Israel keep all existing West Bank
settlements, like Ramat Givat Zeev.Credit...Ammar Awad/Reuters
The administration has insisted that Mr. Netanyahu obtain the consent of his
centrist coalition partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, for any
annexation. Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

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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 American officials say, requires resolving a
difference of opinion between two close confidants of the president: Jared
Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and David M. Friedman,
the United States ambassador to Israel, who was Mr. Trump’s longtime
bankruptcy lawyer.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Friedman, a generous donor to the Israeli settlement enterprise before
entering government and who played a key role in reversing a longstanding
American policy treating the settlements as illegal, has let it be known
that he is more invested in annexation than in the peace plan.

Mr. 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 Mr. Friedman, delaying annexation risks missing out on it altogether if
Mr. Trump does not win re-election.


Image
David M. Friedman, the United States ambassador to Israel, left, is more
interested in pushing annexation than the peace plan. Jared Kushner, Mr.
Trump’s senior adviser, right, wants the peace plan to succeed.
David M. Friedman, the United States ambassador to Israel, left, is more
interested in pushing annexation than the peace plan. Jared Kushner, Mr.
Trump’s senior adviser, right, wants the peace plan to succeed.Credit...Lior
Mizrahi/Getty Image
The split between the two surfaced only hours after Mr. Trump, with Mr.
Netanyahu beside him, announced his peace plan at the White House in
January. Mr. Friedman and Mr. Netanyahu both assured Israeli reporters
afterward that Israel was free to annex West Bank land immediately. But Mr.
Kushner quickly said that Israel needed to wait, at least until it formed a
new government.

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Administration officials play down the split and insist the two simply hold
different positions on the same team: Mr. Friedman’s brief is limited to
Israel and the Palestinians, while Mr. Kushner’s responsibilities include
the broader Middle East as well as the Trump re-election campaign.

But Mr. Friedman’s haste, other officials say, aligns him more closely with
Mr. Netanyahu and the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, who are
pressing to move quickly on annexation.

Mr. Friedman has effectively dismissed the peace plan as improbable. The
conditions the plan imposes on the Palestinians to achieve statehood, he
said, are only plausible “when the Palestinians become Canadians.”

Critics have seized on that remark. Yossi Klein Halevi, an author and senior
fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, suggested in The Wall
Street Journal last week that Mr. Friedman and settler leaders were treating
Mr. Trump as a “useful idiot” whose peace plan would serve settler interests
now but would never deliver a Palestinian state.


Image
Palestinians protesting Israeli settlements and Israel`s annexation plan in
the West Bank city of Jericho on Monday.
Palestinians protesting Israeli settlements and Israel`s annexation plan in
the West Bank city of Jericho on Monday.Credit...Issam Rimawi/Anadolu
Agency, via Getty Images
Even in private meetings, according to Israeli and American officials, Mr.
Friedman is asked frequently by Israeli officials whether he is articulating
his own views or those of the Trump administration.

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Nowhere are the differences between Mr. Friedman and Mr. Kushner clearer,
officials say, than over the timing of annexation.

Mr. Netanyahu and his allies are pressing for haste by saying the Trump
administration amounts to a “golden opportunity” for American approval that
would disappear if Joseph R. Biden Jr., who opposes unilateral annexation,
defeats Mr. Trump in November.

But analysts and officials note that this view puts Mr. Friedman in the
position of hedging against his boss’s 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, Mr. Friedman tried, and failed, to mediate between Mr. Netanyahu
and Mr. Gantz. At one point, officials said, he was kept waiting on a couch
for several hours while Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz haggled over other
subjects behind closed doors.

Mr. Friedman’s intervention was widely interpreted in Israel as an attempt
to pressure Mr. Gantz.


Image
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, at a cabinet meeting last week, has
opposed unilateral annexation. Mr. Netanyahu, right, supports it.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, at a cabinet meeting last week, has
opposed unilateral annexation. Mr. Netanyahu, right, supports
it.Credit...Pool photo by Sebastian Scheiner
The White House discussions on Tuesday are expected to include Mr. Kushner,
Mr. Friedman, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser
Robert C. O’Brien, the Middle East peace envoy, Avi Berkowitz, Vice
President Mike Pence and possibly Mr. Trump. According to senior American
and Israeli officials, the administration may weigh options including a very
limited annexation to win Mr. Gantz’s approval, or letting Mr. Netanyahu go
ahead without Mr. Gantz’s agreement, and what the Palestinians could be
offered to mollify them.

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It also could decide that a unilateral Israeli move, and the resulting furor
— 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 re-election campaign.

There is also the matter of whether Mr. Netanyahu, if he is denied the green
light he has counted on, should be given something else with which to save
face back home.

Among the possible inducements for putting annexation on hold, officials
said, is reviving an effort to reach a “nonbelligerence” pact between Israel
and four Gulf Arab countries: Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab
Emirates.

Mr. Ross, the former American negotiator, and an official privy to those
talks both said that annexation would kill any chance of such a pact. “The
message that was conveyed, and I’m not theorizing on this, is annexation
means that’s off the table — not just for now, but forever,” Mr. Ross said.

As a political matter, annexation is seen as of limited value to Mr. Trump.
The evangelical Christian world, a vital segment of his base, is mostly
indifferent to annexation by itself, said Robert Jeffress, pastor of First
Baptist Dallas and one of Mr. Trump’s informal evangelical advisers.

Joel C. Rosenberg, an evangelical author who founded a group that mobilizes
Christians to support Israel, warned that if annexation creates turmoil it
could backfire against Mr. Trump. “I don’t see any pickup among evangelical
voters for this move, and there’s a risk that you could lose some
evangelical votes, in the very states where you might be more vulnerable,”
he said.


Image
The Israeli settlement of Modiin Ilit in the West Bank.
The Israeli settlement of Modiin Ilit in the West Bank.Credit...Samar
Hazboun for The New York Times
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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 re-elected,’” said David Makovsky, a
former peace negotiator now at the Washington Institute for Near East
Policy.

Mr. 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 settlement construction
where it would be created — are not in the offing.

But Mr. Netanyahu’s ambassador to the United States, Mr. 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, the 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,” Mr. Hanegbi said.

But Mr. Ross suggested that Mr. 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 Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname. “‘And
that’s not what we put out.’”

Elizabeth Dias contributed reporting from Washington, and Adam Rasgon from
Tel Aviv.

As Annexation Looms, Israeli Experts Warn of Security RisksJune 19, 2020
Arab Envoy Warns Israelis That Annexation Threatens Warming TiesJune 12,
2020
The Palestinian Plan to Stop Annexation: Remind Israel What Occupation
MeansJune 8, 2020
Abbas, Cornered by Israeli Annexation, Opts for ‘Judgment Day’ ScenarioMay
20, 2020
Netanyahu’s Annexation Plans Meet Surprise Opponent: Israeli SettlersJune 1,
2020
David M. Halbfinger is the Jerusalem bureau chief, covering Israel, the
occupied Palestinian territories and the Middle East. @halbfinger

Michael Crowley is a White House correspondent, covering President Trump’s
foreign policy. He joined The Times in 2019 from Politico, where he was the
White House and national security editor, and a foreign affairs
correspondent. @michaelcrowley

A version of this article appears in print on June 23, 2020, Section A, Page
11 of the New York edition with the headline: As West Bank Annexation Nears,
Mixed Signals Flourish. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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