US ambassador to Israel warns against West Bank annexation

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JERUSALEM (AP) — The U.S. ambassador to Israel has cautioned Israel against “unilateral action” in annexing West Bank settlements, warning that such a move could endanger the Trump administration's recently unveiled Mideast plan.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had initially sought to move quickly to annex large swathes of the West Bank containing Jewish settlements, following the U.S. plan's announcement on Jan. 28. Netanyahu called for his Cabinet to vote on such a measure, only to call it off a day later. The move would have risked provoking a harsh backlash from the Palestinians and the international community.

U.S. Ambassador David Friedman wrote Sunday on Twitter that “the application of Israeli law to the territory which the Plan provides to be part of Israel is subject to the completion of a mapping process by a joint Israeli-American committee.”

“Any unilateral action in advance of the completion of the committee process endangers the Plan & American recognition,” he said.

Last month, senior Trump aide Jared Kushner said days after the plan's announcement that the administration would not support Israel taking any unilateral steps to annex parts of the West Bank before the country's March 2 parliamentary elections.

The Palestinians seek the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — for an independent state.

Most of the international community views Israel's east Jerusalem and West Bank settlements — now home to some 700,000 Israelis — as illegal. The Palestinians consider them a major obstacle to peace.

The Trump plan would allow Israel to annex all of its settlements along with the strategic Jordan Valley. It would give the Palestinians limited autonomy in several chunks of territory with a capital on the outskirts of Jerusalem, but only if they meet stringent conditions.

While Prime Minister Netanyahu welcomed the plan as a “historic national mission,” the Palestinians have adamantly rejected it.

In the face of U.S. criticism, Netanyahu has walked back his calls for immediate annexation of the West Bank. Addressing supporters on Saturday, Netanyahu said mapping of the region was underway, and rebuffed criticism from his nationalist allies over dragging his feet.

“We have been waiting for this since ‘67 and people are making a big deal over a few weeks,” Netanyahu said.

Speaking at a conference in Jerusalem on Sunday, Friedman said that “the president put out a plan for the next hundred years, not the next 30 days,” alluding to the upcoming Israeli elections on March 2.

Netanyahu is seeking a fourth consecutive term in office. This will be Israel's third parliamentary elections in under a year after the long-serving premier failed to form a government following April's and September's votes. He also faces trial on a series of corruption charges after the Israeli attorney general indicted him in November. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.

“I would encourage everyone to take a step back and a deep breath because this is something that, if done right, can ensure Israel's security and bring great prosperity and dignity to the Palestinians,” the ambassador said.

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