JERUSALEM - Questions surfaced Thursday over whether Israel would immediately seek to annex parts of the illegally occupied West Bank, after US President Donald Trump's controversial initiative that called for extending Israeli sovereignty to the area.
The plan, seen as overwhelmingly supportive of Israeli goals, has been universally rejected by Palestinians. President Mahmoud Abbas called Trump's blueprint an "onslaught against the national rights of the Palestinian people". It gives Israel a US green light to annex key parts of the occupied West Bank, including in the strategic and fertile Jordan Valley.
International law forbids the annexation of war-won territory. Israel argues that the West Bank is a special case because it was never part of a Palestinian state. Israel, the West Bank and Gaza were all part of the British-ruled Palestine Mandate, and Britain had promised a national home for the Jewish people there, without specifying its boundaries. On that basis, Israel says it has the right to extend sovereignty over the territories with a simple Cabinet vote, a position backed by the Trump administration.
Most of the international community rejects that interpretation, and views annexed east Jerusalem and the West Bank as occupied territory because they were seized in war. Amichai Cohen, a legal expert at the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan think tank, said Israel's legal claim is "simply a way to try to avoid a confrontation with the international community. Annexation has a negative aura to it because it’s illegal to annex territory," he said.
Annexation may be widely seen as a violation of international law, but there would be no way to hold Israel accountable outside of the United Nations Security Council, where the US wields a veto.
After Trump unveiled his long-awaited plan in Washington on Tuesday, his ambassador to Israel David Friedman said Tel Aviv "does not have to wait at all" to begin the process of annexation. Israeli officials then said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a staunch Trump ally, would seek cabinet approval on Sunday to annex settlements and territory that would be part of Israel under the US plan.
But Jared Kushner - Trump's adviser and son-in-law who spearheaded the Middle East initiative - said that Washington does not want any moves made before Israel's March 2 election.
Asked about the timing of any annexations in an interview with Gzero media, Kushner said: "The hope is they will wait until after the election."
"We'll start working on the technical stuff now, but I think we'd need an Israeli government in place in order to move forward," he added.
In the interview, he repeated the Trump administration's displeasure with the Palestinian government, accusing them of playing "the victimhood card" and passing up an opportunity for a state. He called on Palestinian leaders to either "put up or shut up".
Kushner's comments reiterated a stance that he had expressed previously to other media outlets. Some analysts have interpreted his aggressive rhetoric towards Palestinians as an expression of bias towards Israel.
Netanyahu currently heads a caretaker government after his Likud failed to win a majority in two elections over the past year. It is unclear whether the caretaker administration even has a legal mandate to carry out such a significant move as annexation, with the Israeli political system still mired in electoral deadlock.
Likud is again running neck-and-neck in the polls with the centrist Blue and White party led by ex-military chief Benny Gantz and it remains unclear if either bloc will be able to form a government following a new election scheduled for March.
The Israeli premier also faces graft charges as he battles for re-election, after he was formally charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He is facing trial for corruption over gifts and favourable media coverage received in return for regulatory and financial benefits.
'Miss of the century'
The Trump plan enjoys wide support in Israel, including among all the major parties in the Israeli Knesset. In making the case for urgency, Netanyahu says Israel has a rare opportunity from the greatest friend it has ever had in the White House. He is especially facing calls from the Israeli right to act on the Trump plan.
Israeli Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein said he would move to "fast-track" any bill proposing the annexation of Palestinian territory, warning that Israel "must not miss this opportunity... to make use of the US administration’s historic willingness".
"Whatever will be delayed until after the election won't ever happen. Everyone understands that. Every settlement, every yard of land that will be postponed to after the election will remain out (of Israel) for another 50 years," Defence Minister Naftali Bennett, who is vying with Netanyahu for support from right-wing voters, said Wednesday.
"If we delay or diminish applying sovereignty, the opportunity of the century will become the miss of the century."
Netanyahu was in Moscow on Thursday seeking to broaden international support for Israel's ambitions.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who was travelling with him, told army radio that the government wanted to move on annexation "as quickly as possible in a number of days."
At the start of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Netanyahu said Trump's initiative offered "a new and perhaps unique opportunity," without mentioning annexation. The Russian leader did not mention the Trump plan at all in his public remarks.
Meanwhile, Israel's army announced that it had deployed extra troops to the West Bank and Gaza ahead of any further Palestinian demonstrations against the Trump plan.
One rocket was fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip on Wednesday evening. In response, Israeli aircraft struck a "number of Hamas terror targets" in the southern Gaza Strip, the army said.
A Israeli military official said the decision to deploy extra troops to the West Bank and the Gaza border was made "to minimise the risk of a flareup."
The protests have been relatively muted since the Trump announcement. But the Palestinian Red Crescent said a total of 18 people were injured in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Hebron on Thursday during demonstrations.
In Ramallah, Israeli troops fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse demonstrators. According to the Ramallah-based Palestinian Prisoners Club, 33 protesters have been arrested over the last 24 hours.
Police said they had decided to boost their forces in and around occupied Jerusalem ahead of Friday prayers at the volatile Al-Aqsa mosque compound.