JERUSALEM – Short of a green-light from the United States, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu seems to have delayed his plans to start the process of annexation of occupied Palestinian territories.
His coalition government set July 1 as the date it can begin action on President Donald Trump’s proposals, roundly rejected by the Palestinians and which pave the way for Israel to annex territory in the occupied West Bank, including Jewish settlements considered illegal under international law
Ahead of the self-imposed kick-off date, Netanyahu met in Jerusalem with US Ambassador David Friedman, a supporter of Jewish West Bank settlers, and Washington’s envoy for international negotiations, Avi Berkowitz.
“I discussed the question of sovereignty, which we are currently working on and will continue to work on in the coming days,” Netanyahu said in a statement issued after the US meeting.
Application of “sovereignty” is a term used widely in Israel to refer to what the international community considers annexation.
An Israeli minister played down on Tuesday the likelihood of major moves to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank on July 1.
Zeev Elkin, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said Israel still did not have the green light it seeks from Washington to begin extending its sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, territory Palestinians seek for a state.
“Whoever painted a picture of everything happening in one day on July 1, did so at their own risk,” Elkin, minister of higher education, told Army Radio when asked what would happen on Wednesday. “From tomorrow, the clock will start ticking.”
No cabinet session for Wednesday has been announced.
On Monday, Netanyahu’s chief coalition partner, Defence Minister and alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, said annexation must be put on hold until Israel’s resurging coronavirus outbreak has been contained.
European powers including Britain, France and Germany as well as the UN oppose unilateral West Bank annexations as a violation of international law that would undermine a two-state solution to the conflict.
Netanyahu, in power since 2009, has pursued closer ties with Arab states, notably in the Gulf, seeking economic cooperation and a united front against common foe Iran.
But Gulf leaders have also made clear that moves towards annexation would threaten any warming relations with the Jewish state.
Even Israelis, battered by the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic, appear lukewarm about annexation moves now.
A poll by the Channel 12 network said that only 5% ]of people believed that extending Israeli sovereignty over West Bank settlements should be the government’s top priority.
“In this case, one would ask, why would Mr. Netanyahu promote (annexation)?” the president of the Israeli Democracy Institute think-tank, Yohanan Plesner, told reporters.
Netanyahu has not revealed his plans, but Israeli media have suggested action could be delayed, or that the premier might pursue a merely symbolic move like the annexation of one settlement on Jerusalem’s outskirts.
Plesner said the premier may want to move forward to distract from his ongoing corruption trial, in which he denies wrongdoing.
The 70-year-old could equally be trying to cement his legacy as a leader who expanded the Jewish state’s borders, or affirm his right-wing credentials before collapsing his coalition and forcing another election, Plesner said.
Erez Yakoobi, who lectures in the psychology of leadership at Israel’s Ono Academic College, said Netanyahu is motivated by one key question: “How can I stay prime minister in the long-run?”
By not revealing his roadmap for implementing the Trump plan, Netanyahu could be playing for time, waiting to assess the diplomatic landscape.
“He doesn’t want to speak broadly about the plan until he thinks it’s the good moment to present what he will do,” Yakoobi said.
Experts have noted that Netanyahu is also watching the US presidential elections to see if Trump will be in office after January to defend his vision for Middle East peace.
Presumptive Democratic party nominee Joe Biden has publicly opposed unilateral Israeli annexations.
Beyond annexation, the Trump plan calls for the creation of a de-militarised Palestinian state, largely encircled by Israel — terms the Palestinians have dismissed as unacceptable.
In a formal counter-proposal presented to the international peacemaking Quartet, the Palestinian leadership said they are prepared to renew long-stalled peace talks with Israel and to agree to “minor” territorial concessions.
The document said the Palestinian Authority was open to a “state with a limited number of weapons and a powerful police force to uphold law and order.”