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Israel annexation plan: Tensions within government over declaration on due day

Remarks by the foreign minister appear to indicate further signs of rifts within Israeli coalition over timing of annexation
Palestinians and Israeli activists protest against Israel's plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank near Jericho on 27 June (AFP)

Remarks by Israel's foreign minister hinted that a major Israeli announcement on its proposed annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank would be delayed on Wednesday, amid disagreements within the coalition government and Palestinian and international outcry. 

While uncertainty remained on Wednesday as to whether the Israeli government would unveil its plans, Palestinians staged protests to denounce annexation wholesale, regardless of timing or parameters.

Gabi Ashkenazi, a member of the Blue and White party in coalition with Netanyahu's Likud, said an announcement was unlikely on Wednesday, the start-date set by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for discussing such a move.

"It seems unlikely to me that this will happen today," Ashkenazi told Israel's Army Radio on Wednesday.

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"I reckon there will be nothing today, regarding the application of sovereignty."

"Application of sovereignty" is a euphemistic term used in Israel to refer to annexation, which is a violation of international law.

In a sign of rifts within the coalition over the timing of any unilateral annexation move, which has been fiercely opposed by Palestinians, Ashkenazi referred further questions on the matter by the interviewer to Netanyahu.

Alternate prime minister and defence minister Benny Gantz said earlier this week that annexation must wait until the coronavirus crisis has been contained.

Gantz is due to take over as prime minister in November 2021 under the terms of a coalition deal. 

Trump election concerns

Netanyahu met on Tuesday with US Ambassador David Friedman, a staunch supporter of Israeli settlements and of annexation, both of which are illegal under international law.

"I discussed the question of sovereignty, which we are currently working on and will continue to work on in the coming days," Netanyahu said after the meeting in another apparent playing-down of the 1 July start-date.

Netanyahu may still move forward, either later on Wednesday or in the days ahead, with Israeli media suggesting he may announce a merely symbolic move, like the annexation of an illegal settlement on Jerusalem's outskirts, AFP reported.

But experts have noted that he is keenly watching the US presidential election campaign and may still want to act decisively before January if he fears US President Donald Trump will not win a second term.  

Trump's Israel-Palestine plan, unveiled in full at the White House in January, offered a path for Israel to annex territory and West Bank settlements.

However, it was only to be carried out alongside moves towards creating an “independent” Palestinian state - albeit a heavily fragmented one with limited sovereignty.

Presumptive Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden has expressed opposition to any unilateral annexations by Israel.  

International criticism

While the US has offered tacit support for immediate annexation as part of the Trump plan, most of the international community is vocally opposed to the project. 

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Writing in Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Wednesday, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that although he was a "passionate defender of Israel", he viewed annexation as "contrary to Israel's own long-term interests".

"Annexation would represent a violation of international law," he said.

France, Germany along with several other European states and the United Nations all oppose annexation, as do Gulf Arab states, despite increasingly warmer ties with Israel. 

Jordan, one of only two Arab nations that has diplomatic ties with Israel, has warned that annexation could trigger a "massive conflict" and has not ruled out reviewing its 1994 peace treaty with Israel.  

Palestinian protesters gather

Palestinians have called for mass protests on Wednesday in the West Bank, including in the Jordan Valley, which is targeted for annexation, and in the besieged Gaza Strip.

Hamas, which governs Gaza and has fought three wars with Israel since 2008, says that Israeli annexations in the West Bank would be a "declaration of war".

The movement launched some 20 test rockets from Gaza into the Mediterranean Sea on Wednesday, a move aimed at dissuading Israel from moving forward, a Hamas source told AFP. 

Since the 1967 Middle East war, Israel has annexed East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights in moves never recognised by the international community, and occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

As Netanyahu has vowed that any Palestinians living in annexed territories would not be granted citizenship, critics have argued that any annexation moves would further cement the idea that Israel is an apartheid state.

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