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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 October 2020

Embattled Trump team cools on Netanyahu's annexation bid

Beset by domestic difficulty, White House may see tensions in the Middle East as a problem they could do without

Support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's planned annexation of much of the occupied West Bank appears to have waned in the US this week, with the Trump administration beset by a barrage of political setbacks.

On Wednesday, Mr Netanyahu's self-imposed deadline, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said it was likely there would be no announcement.

Talks between senior Israeli and Trump administration officials in recent days have not resulted in Mr Netanyahu getting a green light to swiftly annex any West Bank settlements and parts of the strategic Jordan Valley – areas that Palestinians want for a future state.

US President Donald Trump initially offered these zones to Israel in a plan unveiled in January, but appears to have cooled on any land grab as he fights the coronavirus pandemic, racial tensions and a new tell-all account of incompetence in the Oval Office.

Jonathan Cristol, an expert on Middle Eastern politics at New York's Adelphi University, said Americans were "completely consumed" by rising Covid-19 deaths and protests against heavy-handed policing as they mull whether to re-elect Mr Trump in November.

"Netanyahu may have thought he could move to annex parts of the West Bank while the world was distracted, but I think he underestimated the pushback from people he believed would be on his side," Mr Cristol told The National.

This includes American diplomats from all political persuasions and congressmen who are otherwise friendly to Israel, he said, as well as Gulf states.

Mr Netanyahu said he planned to swiftly extend Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley, as envisaged in Mr Trump's so-called Deal of the Century, under which Israel would control about 30 per cent of the West Bank.

Global opposition has mounted, with Palestinian leaders, the UN, European powers and Arab nations all expressing strong opposition to any annexation of land that Israeli forces captured in a 1967 conflict.

Talks last week between Mr Trump's top national security aides and Israeli officials were described as "productive" by a White House insider, but did not immediately approve Mr Netanyahu's plan to start claiming the disputed territories as soon as July 1.

On Tuesday, progressive congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democratic lawmakers signed a letter that called for placing conditions on $3.8 billion (Dh13.95bn) of US military aid to Israel if it moves forward with a land grab in the West Bank.

The strongly worded document outlines plans to "work to ensure non-recognition of annexed territories" and to "pursue legislation" to withhold military funding to Israel, though it is not known whether Ms Ocasio-Cortez can muster enough support on Capitol Hill.

Earlier this month, UAE Ambassador to Washington Yousef Al Otaiba published a widely read op-ed in an Israeli newspaper, warning Mr Netanyahu that annexation would hurt Israel's chances of normalising ties with Arab states.

Recent polling data from Shibley Telhami, a Palestinian-American professor at the University of Maryland, suggest that few Americans are focused on Middle East peace efforts, which have been drowned out by a glut of breaking news stories.

Only 29 per cent of 2,400 respondents were either "very familiar" or "somewhat familiar" with Mr Trump's blueprint for peace. Thirty-one per cent of respondents supported annexation, while 48 per cent were opposed. More Republicans backed annexation than Democrats.

Mr Trump, a Republican, is trailing in the polls behind his expected Democratic challenger Joe Biden in the November 3 vote, with coronavirus infections growing across the US south and west and political unrest over repeated police killings of unarmed black people.

Against this backdrop, Mr Netanyahu on Sunday presented his case for annexation in an online meeting of Christians United for Israel – an American group of mostly evangelical Christians who are vital to Mr Trump's re-election strategy.

The Israeli leader told the pro-Trump crowd that he wanted to declare sovereignty over parts of the "historic Jewish homeland" that were also an "integral part of Christian identity, part of your heritage and of our common civilisation".

Sunjeev Bery, the executive director of Freedom Forward, which campaigns for looser US-Israeli ties, said the Trump administration was backtracking on Israel's expansion plans in the face of "deep opposition" among US voters.

"Even within Trump's evangelical base, there is significant ambivalence," Mr Bery told The National.

"Given the Trump administration's failure to address the coronavirus pandemic, along with so many other bruising headlines, it's no surprise that the Trump team might be stepping back from a full embrace of Netanyahu's latest brutal plan."

Updated: July 1, 2020 04:14 PM