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US envoy Friedman warns Israel against 'unilateral' West Bank annexation

Rare rift between allies opens up over mapping of occupied territory Israel wants to annex
Friedman’s warning comes as Netanyahu is under intense pressure from settlers to take action ahead of elections (AFP)

US Ambassador David Friedman warned Israel on Sunday not to declare sovereignty over occupied West Bank land without Washington's consent, pushing back against calls for immediate action by ultra-nationalists within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition.

US President Donald Trump's proposal for Israel and Palestine, unveiled on 28 January, envisages Israel keeping key swathes of the occupied territory where Palestinians seek statehood. Still, the question of timing has opened up a rare rift between the allies, Reuters said.

Any unilateral move by Israel to annex territory may jeopardise future US recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the occupied areas, the Wall Street Journal reported. US officials say Israel and the US must agree on a map of the areas Israel can annex before it can do so.

Netanyahu initially pledged a speedy "application of Israeli law" - de facto annexation - to Jewish settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley, delighting his religious-rightist base ahead of Israel's 2 March election, where he hopes to win a fifth term.

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He was forced to backpedal after the White House made clear it wanted the US-Israeli mapping process - likely to take weeks or more - completed first.

The Palestinians, for their part, have vigorously rejected the Trump proposal, dubbed by some as the “deal of the century”, as a non-starter.

Most countries consider Israeli settlements on land captured in the 1967 Middle East war to be a violation of international law. Trump has changed US policy to withdraw such objections and the prospect of Israeli annexations have drawn widespread condemnation.

Palestinians say the settlements make a future state unviable.

"Any unilateral step is rejected whether it is taken before or after the election," said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "Facts can't be created on the ground and they will never become a reality."

"The only thing we can accept is the Palestinian map on the 1967 borders," Abu Rdainah added.

With Defence Minister Naftali Bennett and other Israeli ultra-nationalists urging an immediate cabinet vote on sovereignty in the West Bank, the US ambassador intervened.

"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," envoy Friedman tweeted.

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In a separate speech, Friedman elaborated that his message was "a little bit of patience, to go through a process, to do it right, is not something which we think is too much to ask for".

"With the news out that the (Israeli) cabinet was about to be pushed in a direction that was potentially adverse to our view of the process, we just let people know where we stand," he told the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs (JCPA) think-tank.

"It was not a threat."

In parallel, Netanyahu invoked the White House position.

"The (US) recognition is the main thing and we don't want to endanger that," the premier told his cabinet on Sunday.

At the JCPA, Friedman said the mapping process was unlikely to be completed before 2 March. But he held out the possibility of implementation even if the election does not produce a clear winner, as was the case twice in the last year.

Asked if Washington first wanted a permanent Israeli government - as opposed to a caretaker government of the kind Netanyahu has headed by default for months - in place, Friedman said: "We have not made that demand."

Still, Friedman’s warning comes as Netanyahu is under intense pressure from settlers to take action ahead of the elections.

Shai Alon, a member of the Yesha Council that represents Israeli settlers, told the WSJ on Sunday that he is organising nationwide campaigns including a hunger strike to demand Netanyahu annex the settlements before the election.

On Saturday, Netanyahu told an election rally that the mapping process with the Americans was already underway. "We've been waiting since 1967 and some people are making a big deal out of a few weeks," he said.