Former US president Donald Trump authorized then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to annex parts of the West Bank, in a letter obtained exclusively by The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
In a three-page letter dated January 26, 2020, two days before Trump presented his Vision for Peace in the White House, the president summarized some of its details. These included that Israel would be able to extend sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, as delineated in the map included in the plan if Netanyahu agreed to a Palestinian state in the remaining territory on that map.
Trump asked Netanyahu to adopt “the policies outlined in... the Vision [for peace] regarding those territories of the West Bank identified as becoming part of a future Palestinian state.”
“In exchange for Israel implementing these policies,” the US president continued, “and formally adopting detailed territorial plans not inconsistent with the Conceptual Map attached to my Vision – the United States will recognize Israeli sovereignty in those areas of the West Bank that my vision contemplates as being part of Israel.”
What would have been the timeline for Israeli annexation?
The letter did not delineate a timeline for sovereignty recognition.
Netanyahu’s response said that Israel would move forward with sovereignty plans “in the coming days,” according to his spokesman, who did not provide the letter.
Did Jared Kushner's memoir get the narrative wrong?
The letter calls into question the narrative set out in Breaking History: A White House Memoir, a new book by Trump's son-in-law and former senior adviser Jared Kushner. In it, Kushner asserts that former US ambassador to Israel David Friedman went behind his and the president’s back and “assured Bibi that he would get the White House to support annexation more immediately.”
“He had not conveyed this to me or anyone on my team,” Kushner said.
Friedman and Netanyahu viewed the matter differently, and Netanyahu’s spokesman said, “The charge that prime minister Netanyahu surprised the president and his staff with an uncoordinated announcement... is utterly baseless.”
“The charge that prime minister Netanyahu surprised the president and his staff with an uncoordinated announcement... is utterly baseless.”Spokesperson for former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Trump's Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt said that during his time in the White House, "he always understood from former Prime Minister Netanyahu that US recognition of the extension of Israel’s sovereignty over those areas intended to be part of Israel contemplated by the peace plan released by President Trump was necessary for Netanyahu to agree to our proposed peace plan. David Friedman was part of most, perhaps all, of those discussions and I believe he understood that clearly as well. I was no longer working at the White House at the time the peace plan was released, so I do not know what might have changed; but given Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position on the issue throughout our discussions, I am not surprised Netanyahu believed that condition remained in place."
A Trump administration source closely involved with the president's letter said that "it was a key part of Israel's acceptance of the Vision for Peace as the framework for negotiations [with the Palestinians] for America to accept sovereignty up front, as per the mapping process and the plan, and for all the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and the Jordan Valley to be included.
"It was very clear that this was an essential element," the source said.
The leaders’ speeches in the East Room of the White House on January 28, 2020, also belie Kushner’s version of events.
Trump said in his speech – which Kushner said he read and reviewed with the president before delivery – “The United States will recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territory that my vision provides to be part of the State of Israel. Very important.”
Trump said Israel and the US would work together “to convert the conceptual map into a more detailed and calibrated rendering so that recognition can be immediately achieved.”
“We will also work to create a contiguous territory within the future Palestinian state for when the conditions for statehood are met, including the firm rejection of terrorism,” Trump said.
Netanyahu, for his part, publicly accepted a Palestinian state under the conditions set by the Trump plan.
“You are recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over all the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, large and small alike,” he said. “Mr. President, because of this historic recognition, and because I believe your peace plan strikes the right balance where other plans have failed, I’ve agreed to negotiate peace with the Palestinians on the basis of your peace plan.
“Israel wants the Palestinians... to have a future of national dignity, prosperity, and hope. Your peace plan offers the Palestinians such a future. Your peace plan offers the Palestinians a pathway to a future state,” Netanyahu said.
“Israel wants the Palestinians... to have a future of national dignity, prosperity, and hope. Your peace plan offers the Palestinians such a future. Your peace plan offers the Palestinians a pathway to a future state.”Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyhau
The prime minister also said he “look[s] forward to working with you to achieve a peace that will protect Israel’s security, provide the Palestinians with dignity and their own national life, and improve Israel’s relations with the Arab world.”
Immediately after the speeches, Netanyahu said he would bring the extension of Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank to a cabinet vote the following week. Then-ambassador to Israel David Friedman told the media that Israel could start work toward annexation the moment it completed its internal process. Those statements were the ones Kushner claimed were a surprise, though neither was inconsistent with the Trump letter or speech.
In Friedman’s book, Sledgehammer, released earlier this year, the ambassador wrote that the Trump administration did not know that Netanyahu already had the Jordan Valley mapped out for annexation. Netanyahu’s spokesman, however, said the prime minister’s letter to Trump in advance of the White House event specified that he would move forward in a matter of days.
The Trump administration source involved with the letter said that the dispute was only whether sovereignty moves could be made within a few days or weeks. Kushner himself told journalists at the UN days after the plan was presented that the mapping teams will take "a couple of months" before annexation moves forward.
Kushner also repeatedly claimed in the book that he "struggl[ed] to convince Bibi, a master negotiator, to agree to a compromise that would give tangible life improvements to the Palestinians." In contrast, Netanyahu conceded that a Palestinian state would be established in his speech; in addition, Friedman said Netanyahu agreed not to allow Israeli construction in the areas earmarked for the Palestinians in the plan's map, neither of which Kushner mentioned in the book.
The Abraham Accords and US Gulf allies
A Trump administration source speculated that Kushner tried to slow Netanyahu down after gauging the response from US allies in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf, who expressed enthusiasm about the broader plan but not the annexation element.
Greenblatt, who wrote about Trump's peace efforts in his book In the Path of Abraham, said that, despite the disputes about the Vision for Peace, "I think the historic achievement of the Abraham Accords is what is most important to focus on, as well as the release of a realistic, implementable peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians which is based on truth.”
Trump’s letter to Netanyahu presages the Abraham Accords, noting that “many in the Arab world have come to recognize that Israel is not their enemy, but rather an essential ally in deterring Iran’s aggression…I believe that because of the strong relationships my Administration has forged with you and with many Arab leaders, the United States today is in a unique position to help move Israel and the region toward a broader peace.”
The letter also mentions what Kushner wrote in his book was a key part of making that peace happen.
“My vision respects historic claims, preserved the status quo with respect to the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif, and allows Jews, Christians and Muslims throughout the world to know that their heritage in Jerusalem is safeguarded and that all who want to come to pray in Jerusalem in a respectful manner are welcome,” Trump wrote.
Trump notes that there is a “false, but widespread perception that Muslims are not welcome to pray at their Holy Sites in Jerusalem,” and that his plan would “reassur[e] the Muslim world that those who practice Islam can access the Al-Aqsa Mosque for peaceful prayer.”
The letter also assures Netanyahu that the US would work to combat the “absurd claims” by the Palestinians against Israel in the International Criminal Court, “including sanctioning ICC officials and those who cooperate with them if we must.” The Trump administration imposed sanctions on several ICC officials on September 2, 2020, which the Biden administration revoked in April of the following year.
The day of the peace plan announcement was busy and difficult for the Trump administration, which may have contributed to the misunderstanding. The Dow Jones dropped 450 points over corona restrictions outside the US. Then, as journalist Bob Woodward reported, former national security advisor Robert O’Brien told Trump that the pandemic would be “the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency.”
At the same time, the Senate was in the middle of impeaching the president, and the manuscript of former national security advisor John Bolton’s book, The Room Where It Happened, was leaked with relevant details.