Mixed signs on Israeli annexation reflect division among officials

JERUSALEM – When President Trump’s Middle East team meets this week to discuss what to do about the planned annexation of Israeli territory in the West Bank, a fundamental question will be asked: Is the prospect of annexation a pressure tactic to achieve the Palestinians to get involved? The administration’s peace plan, or is the peace plan just a smokescreen for annexation?

American and Israeli officials are deeply divided on the issue, an issue that could determine how and when any annexation proceeds.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to annex up to 30 percent of the occupied West Bank, as outlined in Trump’s peace plan, as early as July 1. And it has the backing of the Trump administration, as most of the world considers it to exist. Jewish settlements in the West Bank are illegal and would treat any unilateral annexation as a flagrant violation of international law.

But the administration has sent mixed signals, initially authorizing annexation, then putting on the brakes, and now, apparently, reconsidering the move at White House meetings that will begin Tuesday.

While US and Israeli officials support annexation in principle, the White House’s encouragement came in the context of its plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu has distanced himself from some parts of the plan, which also calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state and the freezing of any expansion of Israeli settlements in the areas programmed for that state. Those conditions are anathema to the right-wing Israeli settlers whom Netanyahu attempted to woo with annexation in the first place.

The administration has insisted that Mr. Netanyahu obtain the consent of his centrist coalition partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, for any annexation. Gantz, who is on the record opposing unilateral annexation, says he will not accept it without the consent of the King of Jordan. The king, Abdullah II, has warned of a “massive conflict” with Israel if it continues.

Gantz has also insisted that any annexation occur only as an integral part of the Trump administration’s peace plan, which he says he supports in its entirety, not in part.

For something to happen, someone will have to give in.

“We see the contradictions,” said Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. “We still don’t see how they will be resolved.”

To resolve them, Israeli and American officials say, it is necessary to resolve a difference of opinion between two close confidants of the President: Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and David M. Friedman, the United States Ambassador to Israel, who was the longtime Trump bankruptcy attorney.

Kushner was the lead author of Trump’s peace plan, and he is said to believe it is a viable way to resolve the long-standing conflict and potentially reshape the Middle East.

Friedman, a generous donor to the Israeli settlement company before joining the government and who played a key role in reversing a long-standing US policy that treats settlements as illegal, has made it known that he is more involved in annexation than in the peace plan.

Mr. Kushner’s strategy to get Palestinians involved in the plan involves using the threat of annexation as a lever, officials say. Unilateral annexation would eliminate that leverage.

For Mr. Friedman, delaying annexation runs the risk of being completely lost if Mr. Trump does not win reelection.

Administration officials downplay the divide and insist that the two simply have different positions on the same team: Mr. Friedman’s report is limited to Israel and the Palestinians, while Mr. Kushner’s responsibilities include the Middle East more broad and Trump’s reelection campaign.

But Mr. Friedman’s haste, other officials say, aligns him more closely with Mr. Netanyahu and Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer, who are pushing to move quickly toward annexation.

Mr. Friedman has effectively dismissed the peace plan as unlikely. The conditions the plan imposes on Palestinians to achieve statehood, he said, are only plausible “when Palestinians become Canadians.”

Critics have taken advantage of that comment. Yossi Klein Halevi, author and senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, suggested in The Wall Street Journal last week that Friedman and settler leaders were treating Trump as a “useful idiot” whose peace plan would serve the interests of the settlers. now but would never hand over a Palestinian state.

Even in private meetings, according to Israeli and American officials, Israeli officials frequently ask Mr. Friedman if he is articulating his own views or those of the Trump administration.

Nowhere are the differences between Friedman and Kushner more clear, officials say, than at the time of annexation.

Netanyahu and his allies are pressing to rush by saying that the Trump administration amounts to a “golden opportunity” for US approval that would disappear if Joseph R. Biden Jr., who opposes unilateral annexation, defeats Trump in November.

But analysts and officials point out that this view puts Mr. Friedman in a position to protect himself against his boss becoming one-term president.

“He wants to take advantage of what the Trump presidency offers with very low expectations of the Trump presidency,” said Dennis B. Ross, a veteran peace negotiator under Republican and Democratic presidents. “It’s actually quite remarkable.”

Last week, Mr. Friedman attempted, and failed, to mediate between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz. At one point, authorities said, they kept him waiting on a sofa for several hours while Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz haggled over other issues behind closed doors.

Mr. Friedman’s intervention was widely interpreted in Israel as an attempt to put pressure on Mr. Gantz.

Tuesday’s White House discussions are expected to include Mr. Kushner, Mr. Friedman, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien, Middle East peace envoy Avi Berkowitz, Vice President Mike Pence, and possibly Mr. Trump. According to senior American and Israeli officials, the administration may weigh the options, including very limited annexation to gain Mr. Gantz’s approval, or let Mr. Netanyahu go ahead without Mr. Gantz’s agreement, and what the Palestinians They could offer to placate them.

It could also decide that a unilateral Israeli movement, and the resulting fury, including a possible outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, are unwanted headaches for a president already facing tumultuous domestic problems and a difficult reelection campaign.

There is also the question of whether Mr. Netanyahu, if he is denied the green light he has had, should be given something else to save his face at home.

Among possible incentives to suspend annexation, authorities said, he is reviving an effort to reach a “non-belligerence” pact between Israel and four Arab Gulf countries: Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Ross, the former US negotiator, and an official familiar with those talks said the annexation would eliminate any possibility of such a deal. “The message that was passed on, and I’m not theorizing about this, is that annexation means that it’s off the table, not just for now, but forever,” Ross said.

As a political matter, annexation is considered of limited value to Trump. The evangelical Christian world, a vital segment of its base, is indifferent to annexation itself, said Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas and one of Trump’s informal evangelical advisers.

Joel C. Rosenberg, an evangelical author who founded a group that mobilizes Christians to support Israel, warned that if the annexation creates confusion, it could backfire on Trump. “I don’t see any uptick among evangelical voters for this movement, and there is a risk that it may lose some evangelical votes, in the same states where it could be most vulnerable,” he said.

Officials were reluctant to make predictions about where the discussions could end, particularly given the president’s unpredictability. “If Trump doesn’t see a huge electoral benefit, he could say, ‘Too messy, too complicated, I’ll deal with it if I’m reelected,'” said David Makovsky, a former peace negotiator now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mr. Netanyahu’s dual message has embodied division over what annexation represents.

In Israel, he and his closest allies insist that two pillars of Trump’s plan, a Palestinian state and a four-year freeze on settlement construction where it would be created, are not in sight.

But Netanyahu’s ambassador to the United States, Dermer, wrote in The Washington Post on Saturday that the annexation “would open the door to a realistic two-state solution” under the Trump plan.

Another Netanyahu confidant, lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, said the key word was “realistic.”

“We don’t care if you call it a less state or more autonomy, as long as you understand that it is not really sovereign,” said Hanegbi.

But Mr. Ross suggested that Mr. Kushner could draw a different conclusion. “What he probably says to Jared is: ‘For Bibi and company right now, this is just an annexation plan,'” he said, using Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname. “‘And that’s not what we get.'”

Elizabeth Dias contributed reporting from Washington and Adam Rasgon from Tel Aviv.