Netanyahu hints at delay to plans to annex the West Bank

Palestinians protesting in Gaza City on 30 June against Israel’s plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank (Mahmoud Khattab - Quds Net News)

Rosie Scammell

The Guardian  /  June 30, 2020 

Israeli PM’s suggestion that deadline may be missed follows Benny Gantz saying Covid-19 is more urgent than annexation.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is struggling to push through his West Bank annexation plans, slated to start as soon as Wednesday, facing opposition from Palestinians, the international community and even his own government.

Netanyahu had pledged to begin the process of annexing Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley from 1 July, as part of a peace plan devised by Donald Trump’s US administration. But he hinted at a delay on Tuesday, saying annexation talks would continue “in the coming days” with US officials.

The remarks came a day after the alternate prime minister, Benny Gantz, said annexation must wait while the country tackles the coronavirus pandemic, pointing to deep divisions arising from Washington’s initiative.

Unveiled in January, the Trump administration’s plan supported annexation, but also foresaw the eventual creation of a Palestinian state – a red flag for many Israeli settlers, who believe their government should control the entire West Bank. A map published with the US plan shows a fragmented Palestinian state, pockmarked by Israeli settlements that are joined by Israeli access roads.

Washington’s proposal was rejected by the Palestinian leadership immediately, as it offers them a rump state while rejecting their fundamental demands, such as a capital in East Jerusalem.

Despite Palestinians’ firm rejection of the US plan, anti-annexation protests in the West Bank have failed to draw large crowds. The largest rally drew a few thousand people, including foreign diplomats, to Jericho in the Jordan Valley in June. Under Washington’s plan, the city would remain Palestinian while the surrounding area including the border with Jordan would be annexed by Israel.

The Palestinian prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, said a counter-proposal to Washington’s plan had been submitted to the UN, the US, the European Union and Russia, which make up the Quartet.

While Shtayyeh did not detail the proposal, the Palestinian Authority said it was prepared to resume negotiations with Israel, according to a letter seen by AFP news agency.

There has been no public response to the Palestinian proposal and the international community has pressed Israel to halt annexation, deemed illegal by the UN.

“I am deeply concerned that even the most minimalist form of annexation would lead to increased violence and loss of life,” the UN’s top human rights official, Michelle Bachelet, said on Monday.

Jordan, which along with Egypt is the only Arab country to have a peace accord with Israel, has threatened to downgrade or scrap the 1994 agreement.

The EU is weighing up retaliatory measures, and Netanyahu’s government has lobbied the foreign ministers of Germany, Greece and Cyprus to tone down the bloc’s response during their recent visits to Israel.

In the face of opposition from abroad and at home, Netanyahu may amend his plans and annex settlement blocks close to Jerusalem only.

The US team, which includes the White House envoy Avi Berkowitz, is reportedly seeking an agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz before giving its backing to annexation in any form.

Rosie Scammell in Jerusalem