Israeli leader delays West Bank annexation vote

By JOSEF FEDERMAN - Associated Press 23 January 2017, 12:00AM

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delayed a vote Sunday on an explosive proposal to annex one of the West Bank's largest settlements, apparently to coordinate his policy toward the Palestinians with the new administration of President Donald Trump.

The move put on hold legislation that threatens to unleash fresh violence and damage already faded hopes for Palestinian independence. It also may mark Trump's first foray into Middle East diplomacy.

After eight years of frosty relations with President Barack Obama, Netanyahu has welcomed Trump's election as an opportunity to strengthen ties between two allied nations. The two men were scheduled to talk on the phone Sunday.

With Trump signaling a more tolerant approach toward the much-maligned settlement movement, Israel's nationalist right now believes it has an ally in the White House, and Israeli hard-line leaders make no secret they will push for aggressive action in the occupied West Bank.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settlement Jewish Home Party, has been pushing Netanyahu to abandon the internationally backed idea of a Palestinian state and to annex the Maaleh Adumim settlement near Jerusalem.

But after convening his Security Cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu said his Cabinet ministers, including Bennett, had decided "unanimously" to delay action until he goes to Washington to meet with Trump. Netanyahu's office said the Cabinet would hold further discussions ahead of the meeting, which is expected in early February.

Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu thanked Trump for his friendship and his inaugural speech pledge to battle radical Islamic militants. He said that in the phone call they would discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the situation in Syria and the Iranian threat, among other issues.

Netanyahu, a longtime supporter of the settlements, has nonetheless been cautious about expanding them in the face of strong opposition from the international community. In a final showdown with Israel last month, the Obama administration allowed the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution condemning settlements as illegal.

But Bennett and other hard-liners believe there is no longer any reason for restraint.

"For the first time in 50 years, the prime minister can decide: either sovereignty or Palestine," Bennett wrote on Twitter.

There was no explanation for Sunday's delay. But earlier, an official in the Jewish Home Party said Netanyahu had been trying to delay the Cabinet vote at the request of the Trump administration, which did not want to be blind-sided by unilateral Israeli steps. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss internal coalition negotiations.

Annexing Maaleh Adumim, a sprawling settlement of nearly 40,000 people east of Jerusalem, could cause a major clash with the Palestinians and the rest of the international community.

The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — for a future state. The Palestinians and the international community consider all settlements illegal, and unilaterally making Maaleh Adumim part of Israel would deal a powerful blow to hopes for a two-state solution.

To the Palestinians, it would be seen as undermining negotiations. Maaleh Adumim is also strategically located in the middle of the West Bank, potentially hindering the establishment of their state.

"If they are serious about making it part of Israel and closing it down, then it is actually cutting the West Bank into two," said Hagit Ofran of the anti-settlement group Peace Now.

While Trump has not expressed an opinion on the annexation, he has signaled a kinder approach toward the settlement movement than any of his predecessors.

His designated ambassador to Israel has close ties to Jewish West Bank settlements, and a delegation of settler leaders attended Friday's inauguration as guests of administration officials.

Trump also has already said he supports one of Israel's key demands — moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The U.S., like all other countries, maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv, saying the conflicting claims to Jerusalem must be worked out in negotiations.

Trump, however, faces heavy pressure from the Palestinians and Arab countries against moving the embassy. The fate of east Jerusalem, home to the city's most sensitive religious sites, is deeply emotional, and disagreements have boiled over into violence in the past.

The White House dispelled rumors that Trump had imminent plans to announce the move. It said it was only at the "very beginning" of discussing plans to move the embassy.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has sent a series of messages to Trump urging him not to move the embassy and warning that he would revoke recognition of Israel if the move takes place.

Abbas met Sunday with Jordan's King Abdullah II in Amman. Jordan, which serves as the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, has warned that moving the embassy would cross a "red line." Jordan is a key Israeli and Western ally in the battle against Islamic militants.

"We discussed the possibility of moving the embassy, and we say that if this thing happens, then we have measures that we agreed to implement together with Jordan," Abbas said. "And we hope that the American administration will not do that."

Also Sunday, Jerusalem city officials granted building permits for 566 new homes in east Jerusalem. The permits had been put on hold for the final months of the Obama administration.

"We've been through eight tough years with Obama pressuring to freeze construction," said Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. "I hope that era is over and we now we can build and develop Jerusalem for the welfare of its residents, Jews and Arabs alike."

Unlike other West Bank settlements, Israel annexed east Jerusalem and considers its neighborhoods inseparable parts of its capital. But the annexation is not internationally recognized.

Palestinian official Nabil Abu Rdeneh and condemned the building plans and called on the U.N. to act. "It is time to stop dealing with Israel as a state above the law," he said.

By JOSEF FEDERMAN - Associated Press 23 January 2017, 12:00AM

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