The White House issued a rare rebuke of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday night as it doused water on any immediate Israeli settlement annexation plan.
The Trump administration also rebutted the premier’s claims that he had presented such a proposal to the US.
“Reports that the United States discussed with Israel an annexation plan for the West Bank are false,” White House spokesman Josh Raffel said on Monday. “The United States and Israel have never discussed such a proposal, and the president’s focus remains squarely on his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.”
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu overstated the US position as he attempted to bolster his political standing within his own party.
At a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, Netanyahu made statements that made it seem as if he had sought US approval for annexation plans with regard to Area C of the West Bank.
“On the subject of applying sovereignty [to settlements in Area C], I can say that I have been talking to the Americans about it for some time,” Netanyahu said.
The premier’s comments came the day after he asked the coalition to remove a legislative initiative from the ministers’ agenda that would apply Israeli law to settlements in Judea and Samaria, effectively making them part of sovereign Israel.
Netanyahu is under increasing pressure from his party and his coalition partners to take this step, which under the Obama administration would have been considered diplomatic suicide.
The Trump administration has been cagey on the topic of Israeli settlement activity, leading many right-wing politicians to believe this is the time to risk such a move.
There are two principles that must be followed on the matter, Netanyahu said: “One, coordinating with the Americans, because the connection with them is a strategic asset for the State of Israel and settlements. Two, it must be a government initiative and not a private one, because it is a historic move.”
On Sunday, Netanyahu asked coalition party leaders to push off the vote on the “sovereignty bill” in light of the developing security situation on the northern border.
They unanimously agreed, but on Monday a number of them publicly called on him not to delay too long. Netanyahu responded by explaining that Israel would be wise to coordinate its move with the US, rather than act in opposition to it.
Within hours of his statement, a senior Israeli official attempted to walk Netanyahu’s statement back by issuing a clarification.
Netanyahu had spoken over time with the Trump administration about Israel’s national interest within the framework of a future peace
agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, the official said.
The premier “did not present the US with any specific annexation plan, and the US did not give its consent to any such proposal,” the official said.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position is that if the Palestinians continue to refuse to hold peace talks, Israel will present its own alternative,” the official added.
The Prime Minister Office’s followed that statement with an official disclaimer: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu updated the Americans with regard to legislative initiatives in the Knesset. The US expressed its unequivocal position that they were committed to advancing US President [Donald] Trump’s peace plan.”
The proposed legislation, whose wording is vague, was put forward by the chairmen of the influential, right-wing Knesset Land of Israel Caucus, Yoav Kisch (Likud) and Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi).
It is based on a Likud Central Committee decision that called for Israeli law to be applied to settlements. Both groups have been calling for the policy to be enacted.
Bayit Yehudi said it was “happy that for the first time, Prime Minister Netanyahu is talking about enacting our sovereignty plan for Area C in Judea and Samaria. The test will be in actions.”
Smotrich called Netanyahu’s bluff, tweeting: “Excellent. I suggest we pass [the ‘sovereignty bill’] in a preliminary reading next week, and then wait to coordinate with the government proposal. That will be a great catalyst for both coordination with the Americans and the government bill.”
Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay said: “It’s a sad day for Israel when the White House puts in an official statement that our prime minister isn’t telling the truth.
“It’s not just corruption; Netanyahu is weakening our relationship with our greatest ally,” he said.
Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh said: “The Israeli government opposes peace and supports apartheid. This is a wake-up call for the international community and the citizens of the state who strive for peace. We are in the last moments in which the vision of two states is still possible. We must stop Netanyahu’s settler government.”
Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni said: “Netanyahu is letting the Bayit Yehudi lead to annexation, and the meaning is a country without a Jewish majority, without democracy and the continuing, bloody conflict.”
Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg said Netanyahu was trying to distract from corruption investigations against him.
“In order to clear the smoke of the cigars in his indictment, Netanyahu is trying to light the whole region on fire,” she said. “His declaration is the extreme right-wing government declaring a binational state under an apartheid regime, without any chance of separation or negotiations and against the will of the Israeli and Palestinian public.”
But the sovereignty bill is just one of a number of legislative initiatives with regard to annexation. On Monday night, the Knesset voted into law the placement of Ariel University under the auspices of the Council of Higher Education, instead of a designated special council that deals specifically with Area C.
The new law is meant to streamline the opening of a medical school in Ariel, but it is also part of a coalition push to apply individual laws to the West Bank. Opponents have called the move “creeping annexation,” while supporters have said it fights discrimination against Israelis based on where they live.
Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin tweeted that Ariel University was now just like any other such institution in Israel, and after “applying Israeli sovereignty on Ariel University, let’s begin to apply Israeli sovereignty on Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeinah, warned that any annexation moves would increase tension and instability, according to the official PA news site Wafa.
“We warn that if such moves are implemented, they will put an end to all international efforts that seek to save the political process,” he said.
“No party has the right to talk about the status of the Palestinian lands, as that is a violation of all international laws that stipulate that the Palestinian lands occupied in 1967 including east Jerusalem are the lands of the State of Palestine, which has become an observer member at the United Nations,” Abu Rudeinah said.
On Monday, Abbas visited Moscow and spoke against the US during a meeting he held with Russian President Vladimir, the Interfax news agency reported.
“We state that from now on we refuse to cooperate in any form with the US in its status of a mediator, as we stand against its actions,” Abbas told Putin.
Abbas was quoted as saying he wanted an expanded new mediation mechanism to replace the Middle East Quartet.
“For instance, ‘the quartet’ plus some other countries like the model used to achieve the deal on Iran,” Abbas said, referring to international talks about Tehran’s nuclear program.
According to Interfax, Putin told Abbas he had spoken with Trump prior to their meeting, and the two leaders had discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
During the call, Trump offered Putin his condolences over Sunday’s crash of a Russian plane in which all 71 passengers were killed.
Adam Rasgon and Reuters contributed to this report.