Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pushing US President Donald Trump to give the go-ahead for Israel's annexation of the West Bank before the country's upcoming general election.
Officials in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office told the Times of Israel's Hebrew-language site on Sunday that Netanyahu is seeking a public declaration from President Trump in support of Israel's annexation of "Area C" of the occupied West Bank, where the majority of its some 500 illegal settlements are located.
Netanyahu is pushing for President Trump to issue such a declaration before Israel's general election on 17 September in a bid to secure his Likud party's victory and therefore his re-election as prime minister.
The revelation has angered the Palestinian Authority (PA), with spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, yesterday slamming the planned declaration as "playing with fire".
"This step would neither establish any right [to Israel in the West Bank], nor it will create a viable false reality," Abu Rudeineh stressed, adding that any decision which affects Palestinian national rights and violates international resolutions will be considered "illegitimate".
For its part, the White House has declined to comment on the allegations.
Speculation that the US could give the go-ahead for Israel's annexation of all or parts of the West Bank has been rife since President Trump took office in January 2017.
Throughout his presidency Trump has ripped up the rule book on Israel-Palestine, recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December 2017, moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the Holy City in May 2018 and recognising Israel's sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights in March 2019.
Though thus far Trump has stopped short of expressing his support for annexation, senior officials have paved the way for the expected announcement, most noticeably Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt.
Last month Greenblatt claimed that the occupied West Bank is "disputed", arguing that "calling it occupied territory does not help resolve the conflict". He had previously argued that Israel's illegal settlements should be referred to as "neighbourhoods and cities", saying that the term "settlements" is "pejorative".
Greenblatt has also stood behind comments made by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman that "under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank". Greenblatt backed Friedman's stance saying: "I will let David's comments stand for themselves. I think he said them elegantly and I support his comments."
Domestically the timing of Netanyahu's bid is no coincidence. Much like the US President's recognition of Israeli "sovereignty" in the Golan Heights shortly before the country's April election, should the latest announcement go ahead it will be seen as a "gift" to Netanyahu's re-election bid.
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It will also give Netanyahu a chance to fulfil his previous promise to annex Area C if he is re-elected as prime minister. Netanyahu's pre-April election promise was seen as a bid to "cannibalise" smaller right-wing parties, which have used annexation as their unique selling point, and therefore secure support for his Likud party. His strategy succeeded, with Likud winning 35 seats and long-time rivals Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked's party failing to cross the minimum electoral threshold.
However, Netanyahu's strategy backfired when in May he failed to form a ruling coalition and was subsequently forced to call a do-over election for September. With the latest polls once again showing Netanyahu could struggle to form a government and that Shaked's new party Yamina – formerly known as the United Right – could gain as many as 11 seats, an announcement by President Trump could play into Netanyahu's campaign message that he has "got things done" and thus save his re-election bid.