JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday he has been discussing with the United States the possibility of Israel annexing Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, drawing swift condemnation from Palestinian leaders.
Netanyahu did not say how far discussions had gone on annexing some of the land that the Palestinians want for a future state – a move that would be certain to meet strong international opposition.
“On the subject of applying sovereignty, I can say that I have been talking to the Americans about it for some time,” Netanyahu told a closed-door meeting of his right-wing Likud party’s legislators, according to the party’s spokesman.
Netanyahu was referring to applying Israeli law to the settlements, a step tantamount to annexation. They are currently under the jurisdiction of Israel’s military, which has occupied the West Bank since the 1967 war.
There was no immediate confirmation from the White House on whether discussions on the subject had been held and a senior Israeli official said Netanyahu had not made a specific annexation proposal to Washington.
Some commentators suggested Netanyahu’s remarks to Likud might have been a move to placate right-wingers in his cabinet rather than a concrete plan.
But the statement stoked Palestinian anger, already high over U.S. President Donald Trump’s Dec. 6 announcement that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said any annexation would “destroy all efforts to try and save the peace process”.
“No-one has the right to discuss the situation of the occupied Palestinian lands,” Abu Rdainah said from Moscow, where Abbas was holding talks with President Vladimir Putin amid reports they may discuss new options for Middle East mediation.
Most countries regard Israel’s settlements as illegal. Israel disputes this.
The Likud spokesman did not mention a timeframe for an annexation or go into further details on the U.S. discussions. He quoted Netanyahu as telling the lawmakers that any change in the settlements’ status must first be coordinated, “as much as possible” with the United States, Israel’s main ally.
A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, later said in a statement that Netanyahu had not presented the United States with specific annexation proposals “and anyway the U.S. has not expressed its agreement to the proposals”.
“Israel updated the Americans about different proposals being raised at the Knesset and the U.S. expressed its clear position that it wishes to advance President Trump’s peace plan,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.
An Israel Radio political affairs commentator described Netanyahu’s comments as largely ideological in nature and said it was unlikely any practical steps would be taken in the near future.
Netanyahu’s comments to the legislators appeared, at least in part, to be an attempt to soften any political fallout within Likud over his decision on Sunday to block a bill proposed by several right-wing lawmakers to annex settlements.
A source at the prime minister’s office said on Sunday the bill was blocked in order to give diplomatic efforts more of a chance.
The Trump administration has been less critical than the Obama White House of Israeli settlement policy. But in an interview published on Sunday in Israel Hayom, a pro-Netanyahu newspaper, Trump urged Israel to tread cautiously.
“The settlements are something that very much complicates and always have complicated making peace, so I think Israel has to be very careful with the settlements,” Trump said.
Trump also voiced doubts about Palestinian and Israeli commitment to making peace.
Asked when he would unveil a promised new peace plan, Trump said: “We are going to see what goes on. Right now, I would say the Palestinians are not looking to make peace, they are not looking to make peace. And I am not necessarily sure that Israel is looking to make peace.”
U.S.-brokered peace talks collapsed in 2014, with the settlement issue one of the main factors behind their failure.
Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Andrew Heavens