Benjamin Netanyahu has signalled he will miss his self-imposed 1 July deadline to start the controversial process of annexing the West Bank, despite mounting pressure from settler factions, as fraught talks with the United States yielded no results.
The Israeli prime minister is permitted to formally present the annexation plan to the cabinet or parliament from Wednesday according to a power-sharing deal he stuck with his coalition partner Benny Gantz.
Despite Mr Netanyahu’s fiery speeches vowing to press ahead, in line with Donald Trump’s January peace deal, he admitted on Tuesday night they were still working things out.
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
The decision to declare sovereignty over the occupied Palestinian territory has been met with fierce backlash from the international community. Boris Johnson on Wednesday cautioned it violates international law and would jeopardise Israel’s own security.
Several other countries, the United Nations, the European Union, most Arab states including Israel’s key neighbours like Jordan, have all warned it will only spark a tidal wave of violence and kill a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict. The Palestinians, who seek all of the West Bank as part of a future nation, have said it would end their hopes of statehood.
And so, Israel needs the backing of the Trump administration, which released a peace plan in January handing nearly a third of the West Bank to Israel along with most of Jerusalem as its capital.
But amid the mounting chorus of condemnation, US appears to have toned down their enthusiasm for the imminent annexation. Israel and the US have been holding talks for several months supposedly finalising a map of which areas of the West Bank will be annexed.
After wrapping up meetings with White House envoy Avi Berkowitz and the US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on Tuesday, Mr Netanyahu admitted nothing had been decided.
“I spoke about the question of sovereignty, which we are working on these days and we will continue to work on in the coming days,” the prime minister said.
Similar doubt was cast by Israel’s foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi who told Israel’s Army Radio annexation would not happen on Wednesday. “I don’t know what will be. I am not a prophet,” he said.
No hype, just the advice and analysis you need
Register with your social account or click here to log in
The West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza have been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war and are territories that the Palestinians hope will become their future state.
However, Israelis see these lands as theirs, and so over the last few decades built hundreds of settlements and outposts.
There are now nearly 430,000 Israeli settlers living in the occupied West Bank, which is home to 2.7 million Palestinians, according to Israeli watchdog Peace Now. Peace Now also estimates there are a further 220,000 Israeli settlers living in occupied East Jerusalem.
During the campaign trail of the last three elections in Israel, Mr Netanyahu has put annexation at the centre of his platform.
He is under time pressure. Mr Trump is considered one of the most amenable US presidents to the idea of annexation and so Mr Netanyahu’s supporters fear it must be pushed through while he is still president in case, he fails to get re-elected.
Leaders of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, which are key allies of the Netanyahu administration, have voiced concern that any delay will end up in annexation being cancelled.
They have even spoken about a July 15 “expiration” date for the plan, according to Israeli daily Haaretz.
Yisrael Gantz, head of the Mateh Binyamin regional council, which encompasses 46 Israeli settlements and outposts in the occupied West Bank, told the Israeli daily they were concerned that in the run up to the presidential elections in the US, the Trump administration would be too distracted to support annexation.
“In the three months prior to the election, the United States will not do anything dramatic,” he posited.
Many of the more ideologically radical settlers, who believe Israel should encompass all of the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza, have also expressed anger at Mr Trump’s peace plan for handing too much territory to the Palestinians. It is another pressure that Mr Netanyahu has to grapple with alongside backlash abroad and pushback from his own ruling coalition.
Benny Gantz, the country’s alternate prime minister, has expressed serious reservations. This week he said annexation should only be advanced “with strategic partners in the region and with the Palestinians, and to reach an arrangement that benefits all sides”.
There have been different reports in Israel media about a watered-down version of annexation in light of these obstacles with Israel’s broadcaster Channel 12 reporting that Mr Netanyahu may only annex three of the larger and old settlement blocs first.
Channel 12 also reported that the American negotiators are asking Israel to make “a significant step” as a gesture to the Palestinians, such as handing over West Bank territory to Palestinian control comparable to that annexed. Israel currently has full control over 60 per cent of the West Bank.