The Trump administration is leaning towards a conditional acceptance of Israeli annexation planned in July for occupied areas in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley, despite warnings from America’s Arab partners.
A senior US official told The National that any annexation would have to be in line with the Vision for Peace plan outlined by US President Donald Trump in January before it would be recognised.
But there is an important caveat to US acceptance. It insists that any recognition of annexation would be tied to the goal of achieving a Palestinian state in the next four years under the framework of the plan that Palestinians have rejected as unilateral and unacceptable.
These would include an agreement by Israel “to freeze all settlement activity for the next four years in areas the Vision earmarks for a future Palestinian state and negotiate with the Palestinians in good faith on the basis of the Vision”, the US official said.
But the planned annexations would impose Israeli sovereignty on areas that the Palestinians want for their future state, including the Jordan Valley, and constitute a unilateral acquisition of land, which is rejected under international law.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said annexation could begin as early as July 1.
“These regions are where the Jewish nation was born and rose,” Mr Netanyahu said on Sunday.
“It is time to apply Israeli law on them and write another great chapter in the annals of Zionism.”
The move has been condemned by the Europeans, and experts agreed it would risk the future of any peace settlement between the Palestinians and Israelis.
"Unilateral annexation in the West Bank, like any unilateral step by either side, is a bad idea because it harms the already difficult prospects of a negotiated two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, told The National.
“It could jeopardise Israeli-Palestinian security co-operation, Israel's relations with Jordan, Israel's status as a Jewish and democratic state, and prospects for improved Israeli-Arab relations.”
On Tuesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared that the Palestinian Authority no longer abided by agreements signed with the US and Israel.
These include the Oslo Accords, the Wye River Memorandum and the Hebron Agreement. He also asked for a different mediator in the conflict.
But it is unclear if Mr Abbas, whose relations with the Trump team have been frayed since December 2018, can change the US stance.
Within the Trump administration, the divide between pro-annexation officials such as David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, and a more cautious US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is around the timing and the process.
No US official has so far fully rejected the plan.
“The Trump administration seems divided on whether to encourage Israel to rush towards unilateral annexation in the coming months,” said Mr Shapiro, also visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
“Some may see it as politically beneficial to President Trump in his re-election campaign. Others may be aware of the risks it poses.”
Khaled Elgindy, head of the Palestinian programme at the Middle East Institute, said the pro-annexation camp in Israel would prefer to move while Mr Trump was in office, rather than risking it if Joe Biden were to win the presidency in January.
Mr Biden, according to The Jewish Insider, warned against annexation in a meeting with Jewish Democrats this week.
"Israel needs to stop the threat of annexation and stop settlement activity, because it will choke off any hope for peace," he reportedly said.
This gives Mr Netanyahu more urgency to do it now, Mr Elgindy said.
“The Israelis want to do it soon, before November, because that’s the window of opportunity under Donald Trump,” he said.
“Doing it if Biden wins [in November] with Mr Trump as a lame duck is very bad form.”
Mr Elgindy said the annexation move ended any Israeli pretence around a peace process.
“It does away with the pretence that the occupation is temporary and that a peace process will somehow result in a Palestinian state,” he said.
“With annexation comes the institutionalisation of the highly unequal reality on the ground, of the apartheid. It formalises apartheid.”
Annexation could mean confiscation of Palestinian land in those areas, Mr Elgindy said.
Despite Mr Abbas’s decision to absolve the Palestinian Authority of agreements with Israel, Mr Elgindy did not see a clear path forward for the PA.
“The PA has long been dependent on the Oslo framework for its own survival and legitimacy,” he said. “It’s not at all clear what its cancellation would mean in practice.
“The format for cancelling PA-Israel security co-ordination was not mentioned in the announcement.
“Beyond strong declarations and condemnations, Mr Abbas’s leadership does not appear to have a strategy.
“They’ve never really had a Plan B, and I am not sure they even have a Plan A.”
For Arab states such as Jordan, annexation spells a nightmare. King Abdullah II warned of damage to relations with Israel if this were to happen.
"If Israel really annexed the West Bank in July, it would lead to a massive conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan," King Abdullah told Der Spiegel on Friday.
Mr Elgindy said: “It is an existential threat for Jordan, which has a Palestinian majority population.”
The plan would “resurrect the idea peddled by the Israeli right that Jordan is Palestine; that the solution is in Jordan”.
For now, a structured conditional annexation by the Israeli government is something that the Trump administration seems willing to accept, despite Palestinian threats.
And it is an opportunity that the Netanyahu government is not willing to miss.