Israel dials down talk of West Bank sovereignty amid U.S. caution

Analysis: While Netanyahu was quick to tout an imminent extension of Israeli jurisdiction over swathes of the West Bank, a rebuttal from Trump peace plan architect Jared Kushner soon led to deleted tweets and a less zealous approach from Jerusalem

Moran Azulay, Elisha Ben Kimon|
Israel's Tuesday rush to extend sovereignty over its West Bank settlements in the aftermath of U.S. President Donald Trump's peace plan announcement was quickly curtailed Wednesday, with officials in Jerusalem significantly toning down language used just hours earlier.
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  • Almost as soon as Trump's plan was revealed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he intended to bring a proposal for applying Israeli jurisdiction to the Jordan Valley, the northern Dead Sea and the West Bank settlements to a cabinet vote "presumably on Sunday."
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    הבית הלבן
    הבית הלבן
    Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Tuesday
    (Photo: Reuters)
    The Trump plan makes clear that the settlements would remain under any final peace deal, something hinted at in November, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that, "the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law."
    But senior presidential adviser and chief architect of the peace plan, Jared Kushner, cast doubt Tuesday evening on the immediate viability of such a move.
    "I don't believe this is going to happen this weekend, at least not as far as I know," Kushner told CNN's Christiane Amanpour.
    A senior Jerusalem official made clear Wednesday that the government would not be voting on annexation in any event, despite speculation that this would be on the cards.
    "The term is 'applying jurisdiction'," he said. "The areas in question are not currently in the hands of any other state and therefore annexation is not the correct term."
    Netanyahu appeared to hastily embrace the prospect of Israeli civil jurisdiction over areas that were previously subject to military law.
    Briefing reporters in Washington on Tuesday, the prime minister said he intended to bring the first stage of the plan to apply Israeli jurisdiction on the West Bank settlements to the cabinet on Sunday.
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    West Bank settlement of Psagot
    (Photo: AFP)
    The second stage would come after a period of preparation and be in coordination with the United States.
    "It will take time, but we will revoke military rule over more than 500,000 Israelis," the prime minister said.
    This means civilian jurisdiction, Netanyahu said, and settlement construction restrictions would be lifted while security control over the entire West Bank will remain in the hands of Israel.
    But the spokesman for the prime minister and his ruling Likud party, Jonatan Urich, speedily deleted a tweet posted immediately after the announcement of the Trump plan, in which he claimed that sovereignty would soon be announced.
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    נפתלי בנט
    נפתלי בנט
    Defense Minister Naftali Bennett
    (Photo: Tommy Harpaz)
    Hawkish Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, however, said Wednesday that postponing a decision to apply jurisdiction over the settlements would be a grave mistake.
    "Whatever we fail to do before the [March 2] election will never get done - and we all understand that," Bennett said.
    He said he has set up a special team comprising of IDF and government officials to work on the immediate implementation of any decision to extend Israeli jurisdiction.
    "They will now have to provide services to 500,000 [West Bank] settlers," the defense minister said.
    Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit also struck a note of caution Tuesday, saying that his job is to assist the government in carrying out its policies but there must be restraint on the part of a transitional government.
    He said, however, that annexation would not be illegal solely because the government was a transitional one.
    "One must examine why the need for haste and why the subject cannot be left for a new government," he told the INSS security conference in Tel Aviv.
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    אביחי מנדלבליט
    אביחי מנדלבליט
    Attorney Gebneral Avichai Mandelblit speaks at the INSS conference on Tuesday
    (Photo: Moti Kimchi)
    Mandelblit is expected to outline for Netanyahu the difficulties with an interim government declaring Israeli sovereignty over all West Bank settlements.
    The main legal problem facing such a drastic move stems from the fact that interim governments such as the one currently installed in Israel don’t normally have the right to make impactful decisions that will affect future administrations.
    "My view is that it is my duty to help the elected administration apply its policies, and that means there are certain rules to follow," said Mandelblit on Tuesday. "Interim governments need to be restrained. If a request is made [by the interim government], I will review it legally, but the current government has other things to worry about first."
    According to Mandelblit, requests made by the current administration are approved 99% of the time.
    "If the request is not approved for some reason, the exception becomes the rule. We need to remember that in the end we’re a nation governed by laws."
    Twenty years ago, at the end of Ehud Barak's term as prime minister, then-attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein opposed the continuation of his administration's negotiations with the Palestinians, reasoning that even though it wasn't technically illegal, it was not proper for an outgoing administration to conduct negotiations that might lead to future binding decisions.
    "The authority of a government before elections is meant to prevent any potential power vacuum," wrote Rubinstein in a letter to Barak. "Such a government is in no way meant to bring such changes that are sure to have ramifications on a global scale. Your government needs to avoid making any substantial changes, all the more so on the eve of the elections."
    The attorney general added: "With all due respect to those in politics, it’s doubtful decisions made so close to elections are free of political motivation."
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