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US warns Israel to delay applying sovereignty to settlements

What happened: US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, yesterday warned Israel to wait to apply sovereignty to West Bank settlements. Friedman alluded to the work of a joint US-Israel mapping committee and said: “Any unilateral action in advance of the completion of the committee process endangers the [Trump] plan and American recognition” of the settlements.

  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promised, when US President Donald Trump launched the plan for Israel and the Palestinians on 28 January, that he would apply Israeli sovereignty over all West Bank settlements “within days.”
  • That process appears to have been delayed, at least until after Israel’s 2 March election, drawing harsh criticism from Netanyahu’s right-wing allies and settler leaders.
  • Defence Minister Naftali Bennett said: “There will never be a better moment for applying sovereignty over our land.” A prominent West Bank settler leader criticised Friedman, writing: “With all due respect, our prime minister is Benjamin Netanyahu, not David Friedman. The era of the high commissioner—who was British—is over.”
  • After an increase in violence late last week, Jerusalem and the West Bank were relatively quiet over the weekend. Friday prayers at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque passed peacefully, while demonstrations in the West Bank were scattered and small-scale, although in certain locations violent. One Palestinian demonstrator was killed by IDF fire in the central West Bank on Friday afternoon.
  • Israel announced yesterday that it was stopping all agricultural exports from the Palestinian Authority (PA) to foreign markets as a result of an escalating trade war between the two sides. The PA had initially halted beef imports from Israel in September, triggering an Israeli boycott of beef and other imports from the PA.

Context: The US veto on Israel imminently applying sovereignty to West Bank settlements complicates Netanyahu’s political position with his right-wing base less than a month before election day. However, the prime minister has attempted to frame the implied US recognition as an achievement in itself, saying: “We don’t want to endanger this, we are acting responsibly and judiciously.”

  • The delay has helped decrease tensions on the ground in the West Bank after last week, although the tit-for-tat trade war could undermine the Palestinian economy in the West Bank. According to figures publicised by the AP, Palestinian vegetable exports to Israel were worth $88 million last year, comprising over two-thirds of all Palestinian vegetable exports.
  • In Gaza, violence continued last night as one rocket was fired at southern Israel, drawing reprisal Israeli airstrikes on a Hamas training compound and military facilities. Rockets and explosive-laden balloon clusters have been launched at Israel for weeks.
  • Netanyahu warned yesterday that he would take “devastating action against the terrorist organisations in Gaza” if the fire continued, adding (in an allusion to the November targeted killing of Baha Abu al-Atta): “We will not accept any aggression from Gaza. Only a few weeks ago, we targeted the senior Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza, and I suggest that both Islamic Jihad and Hamas refresh their memories.”

Looking ahead: A delegation from Egyptian intelligence will visit the Gaza Strip today, raising hopes of an end to the current low level conflict between Israel and Gaza – which began early last month after Hamas political chief Ismael Haniyeh visited Iran for the funeral of Qassem Soleimani, drawing Egyptian anger.

  • Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will address the UN Security Council tomorrow, where he is expected to rally international support for the Palestinians in its diplomatic standoff with the Trump Administration.
  • The Security Council is scheduled to vote on a resolution reaffirming the international consensus on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and condemning Israeli settlements. A draft that was clearly critical of the US plan has apparently been softened in order to gather more support. The US is expected to veto the resolution but it is unclear which of the P5 will abstain.

Israeli media reported last week that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will hold a joint press conference with Abbas in New York to criticise the US plan.