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US warns Israel it will fight attempts to annex West Bank

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The Biden administration warned Israel against trying to annex parts of the West Bank, underscoring how Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing alliance could complicate Israel’s relations with the US if they try to fulfil their most controversial campaign promises.

Mr Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners have advocated annexing parts of the West Bank, asserting a stronger Jewish presence at Jerusalem’s contested holy sites and dramatically expanding Israeli settlements across the West Bank. Many of these goals are at odds with longstanding US policy in the Middle East, which supports the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“Our position is quite clear. We do not support annexation and we will fight any attempt to do so,” said Tom Nides, the US ambassador to Israel, in an interview with Israeli public broadcaster Kan. Mr Nides was responding to a question about a MP in Mr Netanyahu’s bloc who said he hoped the new government would be more active in moving to annex portions of the West Bank.

Mr Nides said he plans to work with the Netanyahu administration, but “we have to stand up for the things we believe in. We are a very strong ally, but there will be times we articulate our differences.”

A spokesman for Mr Netanyahu declined to comment on Mr Nides’ remarks. Mr Netanyahu didn’t make annexation a prominent feature of his campaign, but he threatened to annex swaths of the West Bank in 2019, and has allies who want to go further.

President Joe Biden called Mr Netanyahu to congratulate him this week. “We will bring more historic peace agreements; it’s within reach,” Mr Netanyahu said afterwards.

Mr Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing, ultranationalist and religious parties won 64 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament in elections last week. He has begun negotiations this week with allies over ministerial posts and policy goals, and President Isaac Herzog could hand him a mandate to form a government as soon as Sunday.

Mr Netanyahu was propelled to power again by growing support for an ultranationalist religious alliance called Religious Zionism co-led by Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in 2007 of incitement to racism and belonging to a terrorist organisation. Mr Ben-Gvir has said that Palestinians in the West Bank should be subjects of the state of Israel without national voting rights, and supports deporting Jewish or Arab citizens of Israel who fight against its Jewish character, including most of the country’s Arab parliamentarians.

Religious Zionism supports expanding settlements in the West Bank and annexing large parts of it. The party is also in favour of allowing Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Al Aqsa mosque compound, which would upset a fragile status quo that permits only Muslim prayer on the site.

Any such moves could trigger violence in Israel, add fuel to a growing West Bank conflict and upset relations with the Arab world, testing the Biden administration’s hands-off policy with Israel. The administration has tried to turn its attention toward other international challenges such a Russia’s war in Ukraine, competition with China and combating climate change.

“The Middle East has a way of imposing itself, even if you don’t want to pay attention,” said Dennis Ross, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank.

US moves against Israel could cause consternation from Republicans, whom Mr Netanyahu courted during the Obama presidency, and further erode the bipartisan nature of the US-Israel alliance.

“We see these trends now and I think they’re only going to worsen,” said Michael Koplow, policy director for the New York-based Israel Policy Forum, which advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Netanyahu will have to restrain his rightward flank if he wants to maintain good relations with the White House. However, his domestic political allies hold significant leverage over him, with a small number of MPs able to threaten the loss of his narrow parliamentary majority. Mr Netanyahu’s allies are also pushing legal reforms that could affect his continuing corruption trial, possibly making him immune from prosecution. Mr Netanyahu says he won’t let legislation affect his trial.

“The question is, politically, how Biden will be constrained by the left-wing of the Democratic Party and how far can Bibi go with the new partners that he has,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser to Mr Netanyahu.

Mr Netanyahu has decades of experience on the global stage, and has sometimes rankled his US partners. During a 2010 visit by then-vice president Biden to Israel, Mr Netanyahu’s administration announced a major settlement expansion in East Jerusalem, angering the Obama administration. The relationship with Israel hit a new low point in 2015, when Mr Netanyahu addressed the US congress directly to campaign against efforts to sign a nuclear agreement with Iran.

Despite those clashes, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Biden were able to work together. Mr Netanyahu believes Mr Biden is a strong supporter of Israel, said Mr Ross, who served as a Mideast negotiator under president Barack Obama.

The US’s pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Iran aggravated tensions between Mr Obama and Mr. Netanyahu, but with a deal on hold, most political analysts believe that won’t be a source of tension.

Analysts believe the Biden administration could refuse to meet with Mr Ben-Gvir or Mr Smotrich if they are given ministerial posts, although the US and Israel would still co-operate. Mr Ben-Gvir has asked to be the public security minister overseeing Israel’s police force, which manages security on the Temple Mount, or Al Aqsa Mosque. Co-leader of the Religious Zionism ticket, Bezalel Smotrich, has said he wants to be defence minister.

“I think it would be very difficult, given President Biden’s strong statements about protecting Democratic values around the world, to conduct normal business with people who have espoused racist and bigoted positions,” said Daniel Shapiro, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, of Mr Ben-Gvir and Mr Smotrich.


Mr Nides told Kan that he won’t refuse to meet with certain ministers until he sees what policies they attempt to implement.


The Wall Street Journal

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Article source: Australian Busnsiness Review-Wall Street Journal
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2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000

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