Israeli FM casts doubt on annexation as target start passes

JERUSALEM — (AP) — Israel's foreign minister said Wednesday he doubts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank will start on its target date, casting further uncertainty over whether Israel would ultimately follow through on the explosive initiative that has drawn fierce international condemnation.

“I don't know what will be. I'm not a prophet,” Gabi Ashkenazi told Israel's Army Radio. “I can assume that it won't happen today.”

Netanyahu had aimed to start the process by Wednesday, and eager to begin annexing West Bank territory in line with President Donald Trump’s Mideast plan. The plan, unveiled in January, envisions bringing some 30% of the territory under permanent Israeli control, while giving the Palestinians limited autonomy in the remaining land.

But the plan, which all but rules out the prospect of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, has come under stiff international criticism. The United Nations, the European Union and key Arab countries have all said Israel's annexation would violate international law. Even close allies, like Britain, have opposed it.

In a front page article in the Yediot Ahronot daily, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson noted his long links to the country dating back to when he volunteered on a kibbutz as a teenager. He wrote that as a “passionate defender of Israel,” he was particularly troubled by its current intentions.

“As a life-long friend, admirer and supporter of Israel, I am fearful that these proposals will fail in their objective of securing Israel’s borders and will be contrary to Israel’s own long-term interests,” Johnson wrote. “I profoundly hope that annexation does not go ahead. If it does, the UK will not recognize any changes to the 1967 lines, except those agreed between both parties.”

Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war. The international community considers the territory occupied land, and Israel’s more than 120 settlements there illegal. The Palestinians, who seek all of the West Bank as part of a future state, have rejected the Trump plan. Palestinian protest rallies are expected Wednesday.

With formal Israeli-Palestinian peace talks stalled over the past decade, a status quo has prevailed.

Trump upended decades of U.S. foreign policy by recognizing Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights and Jerusalem as its capital. Netanyahu has seen the friendly Trump administration as a “historic opportunity” to move forward before the November presidential election that may replace the U.S. president.

Besides the international opposition, Netanyahu has encountered some resistance from his Blue and White governing partners, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and also Ashkenazi, the foreign minister.

Their coalition agreement for the new government, which took office in May, gives Netanyahu the authority to present an annexation proposal after Wednesday. But U.S. officials have said they do not want to move forward with a plan unless the two leaders are in agreement.

Gantz, who also holds the title of alternate prime minister, said the July 1 target date was not “sacred” and suggested that annexation can wait while the government grapples with Israel’s health and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus.

Dovish Israeli groups have been holding street protests against the annexation plan and it has also encountered surprising opposition from some of the West Bank settlers themselves, who fear having to recognize a de facto Palestinian state and find themselves engulfed in isolated enclaves.

The majority of them, however, are pressuring Netanyahu to follow through, launching a campaign title "you made a promise - keep it.”

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