Where do major US stakeholders stand on annexation?

In the past few weeks, the public has heard different statements from several US stakeholders regarding the timeline and conditions of Trump's Deal of the Century.

Special envoy Jason Greenblatt, US Ambassador David Freidman, special envoy Jared Kushner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ambassador the US Ron Dermer meet in Jerusalem, July 31, 2019 (photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)
Special envoy Jason Greenblatt, US Ambassador David Freidman, special envoy Jared Kushner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ambassador the US Ron Dermer meet in Jerusalem, July 31, 2019
(photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)
WASHINGTON – Since US President Donald Trump revealed his Middle East vision at the end of January, all the relevant players: Israel, the Palestinians, the EU, the Arab world and the UN, are trying to understand when and under which circumstances the US president would green light Israeli annexation.
In the past few weeks, the public has heard different statements from several US stakeholders regarding the timeline and the conditions that need to be met before Israel could move forward with the plan. And while these stakeholders share the same general view about Israel’s right to apply its laws to West Bank settlements, they have been handling different portfolios and have different priorities, which makes it harder for the administration to communicate a unified message.
So where does each one of them stand?

David Friedman
is considered the most vocal supporter of Israeli sovereignty, and he told The Jerusalem Post in an interview last month that Israel could annex the parts of the West Bank mentioned in Trump’s plan with US approval by July 1, but Israel is the one that has to make it happen.
“We will be ready to address this issue if Israel is ready,” Friedman said. “Ultimately, as Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo said, it’s Israel’s decision. They have to decide what they want to do.” He said that before it happens, the joint US-Israel committee should finish its mapping process on the ground.
The second condition, he mentioned to the Post last month, is that Netanyahu pledges his commitment to Trump’s peace plan and all it entails, including freezing settlement activity outside the 30% of Judea and Samaria delineated by the mapping committee, and expresses a willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians towards the formation of a demilitarized state on the remainder of the West Bank.
People familiar with the peace team’s work also noted that Friedman, as the ambassador to Israel, is tasked full time to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, where other members of the group are working on other portfolios and sometimes won’t comment on the conflict for months.
Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law, was tasked in March to lead the federal response to the COVID-19 crisis. Since then, it has been his main focus. He was also advising the president in recent days regarding the widespread protests across the US, which is the top priority at the White House at the moment. On top of that, Kushner is the president’s point man for the US-Mexico border fence, a project that Trump is eager to promote as fast as possible with the November election quickly approaching. Thus, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t seen as his top priority at the moment. Earlier this week, Kushner spoke over the phone with Prime Minister Netanyahu, a first sign in the past few weeks that he has been giving the subject some attention.
Publicly, Kushner has remained silent in recent weeks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without making any public comments on his opinion regarding the July 1 date. Recent media reports from Israel’s Channel 13 indicated that Kushner “wants to downplay the enthusiasm” and to slow the process as the US is dealing with a series of significant challenges, including the economic effects of COVID-19. People familiar with the peace team’s work indicated that the mapping committee has yet to finish its work and that Kushner would prefer to try and promote the plan as a whole, as a potential long-term opportunity to solve the conflict.
Avi Berkowitz is the youngest in the group. At 31, the special representative for international negotiations and Kushner loyalist is focused on promoting the plan for most of his time while Kushner is busy with his other commitments. However, after the outbreak of COVID-19, he was tasked with FEMA for a few weeks, trying to get more ventilators and personal protective equipment for the coronavirus pandemic.
Before the outbreak, Berkowitz tried to promote normalization between Israel and Arab countries. He also tried to engage with the Palestinians through different channels, in an attempt to bring them to the negotiating table.
In the past few weeks, he is running the day-to-day operation. He represents the US in the Quartet calls and holding conversations with representatives from EU and Arab countries about the plan. Balancing all these responsibilities with the domestic issues in the US is not easy, a person familiar with the peace team noted, and the group is currently taking a “day by day approach.” One indication that things will start moving, the source indicated, is when the mapping committee finishes its work. Another event that might show the peace team is giving full attention to try and promote the plan is when Kushner and Berkowitz visit Israel, the person estimated.
Mike Pompeo announced last November, in a historic reversal of US policy, that it does not view Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal under international law.
“After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate, this administration agrees with [former] president Reagan,” Pompeo said, in reference to Ronald Reagan’s position that settlements were not inherently illegal. “The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.”
Last month, he voiced a similar opinion to Ambassador Friedman’s when asked by Kan Bet about the prospects of annexation. “The Israeli government will decide on the matter, on exactly when and how to do it,” he said. “I hope the Palestinians understand that peace is good for them.” Most notably, he made a rare visit to Israel last month in the middle of the pandemic. And while annexation was reportedly a part of the discussion, Pompeo, too, has a lot on his plate. After his visit, unnamed State Department officials said in a press briefing that the secretary did not fly “halfway around the world to talk about annexation,” and stressed that countering Iran and China, as well as coordinating the global fight against COVID-19, remain top priorities for Pompeo.