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US step back from Netanyahu-Gantz West Bank talks

What happened: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi continue to hold talks over trying to find agreement on extending Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank.

  • On Wednesday Netanyahu reportedly presented Gantz and Ashkenazi with four different maps that showed a range annexation scenarios, including extending law to 30 per cent of the West Bank to a symbolic token few per cent of the land.
  • Contrary to previous meetings by the coalition leaders over the West Bank, Wednesday’s meeting was not attended by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who has decided to step back until the Israeli government comes to a unified position on the issue.
  • Ma’ariv reports that Defence Minister Gantz and Foreign Minister Ashkenazi differ on the implementation of the Trump Plan. Gantz is against applying sovereignty to areas in the West Bank where many Palestinian reside. Gantz also prefers to work with the Palestinians and present steps that will improve the lives of Palestinians as part of the process of applying sovereignty.
  • Foreign Minister Ashkenazi is insisting that any annexation move is approved as part of Trump plan in its entirety. Gantz and Ashkenazi had reportedly created a parallel and independent channel with President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, and were talking to him directly, in an attempt to influence the American position.
  • Prime Minister Netanyahu is leaning toward agreeing to release a statement that will stress the application of sovereignty to the settlements (and perhaps also to other territory) while recognising the establishment of a Palestinian state would be played down or glossed over as much as possible in order to placate some in the settlement movement and his right-wing base.

Context: The internal domestic debate in Israel is occurring in parallel to the international push back against unilateral Israeli moves to extend its sovereignty in the West Bank.

  • In a different tone to his ambassador to the US, the crown prince of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayid, said on Thursday that his country was adamantly opposed to Israel’s plan to annex territories and said that it would take steps against that initiative on the diplomatic level. He wrote this on his Twitter account after holding a phone conversation with King Abdullah II of Jordan.
  • King Abdullah has held at least five briefings with senior members of Congress from both parties. The king “warned that any unilateral Israeli measure to annex lands in the West Bank is unacceptable and undermines the prospects of achieving peace and stability in the region,” said a statement by his court.
  • Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi visited Ramallah yesterday and met with Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and other senior officials in order to coordination efforts between the two sides in their response to Israel’s annexation plans. Safadi said such a move would destroy the two-state solution, and would prevent all peoples of the region from living in security and stability.
  • Abbas warned that annexation would lead to the collapse of the PA. Palestinian sources said that the PA chairman made it clear that if Israel backed down from its plans, he would be willing to renew negotiations immediately with the aim of reaching a genuine peace.
  • The EU is taking a sharper tone towards Israel on the issue of annexation. In a speech in the European Parliament, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said: “We emphatically demand that Israel refrain from any unilateral decision that will lead to the annexation of any occupied Palestinian territory. This would be a severe violation of international law, and it would necessarily have significant repercussions for the close relationship that we now have with Israel.” Despite the warning, the European Parliament approved the Open Skies agreement with Israel by a majority of 437 supporters versus 102 opposed.
  • An analysis paper obtained by Israel Hayom from the Israeli Intelligence Affairs Ministry argues that now is the optimum time to apply sovereignty in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley because this would not result in security tension and relations with the Arab states will quickly return to normal. The analysis argues: “After a wave of diplomatic protest, mainly by governments, annexation will not arouse the Arab street against the regimes. The lack of agitation on the street will show the Arab leadership that the Palestinian issue does not cause them damage. This insight, in the medium term, could lay the ground to improve relations with Israel, without waiting for an Israeli-Palestinian peace arrangement.”

Looking ahead: Sources in the Likud and in Blue and White said that Netanyahu and Gantz would hold one-on-one meeting in the next few days, in which they would try to reach agreement so that a common position could be presented to the Americans.

  • If no agreement is reached, Netanyahu could put his preferred proposal to the cabinet for a vote. He could pass the plan if Blue and White Minister Yoaz Hendel votes yes, which would give the right-wing bloc in the cabinet the necessary majority.
  • However, sources close to Trump have conveyed the message that “only a formula for implementing the peace plan that is acceptable to all parties to the unity government will be advanced”.