Israeli media has extensively reported grumblings among key Netanyahu backers, with David Elhayani, chairman of the powerful Yesha Council, which oversees more than 150 settlements, accusing Kushner of betraying Netanyahu and not being honest with him.
“Kushner took a knife and put it in Netanyahu’s back,” he told The Washington Post. “Kushner misled the prime minister. He misled everybody. He knew for a long time that Netanyahu wanted to declare sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea — he said it many times over the last year. Gentlemen just don’t act this way.”
Elhayani, who traveled to Washington last week for the plan’s White House unveiling, said that by putting the brakes on annexing the settlements, Kushner could cost Netanyahu the March 2 elections.
Israel is about to engage in an unprecedented third election in less than a year, with Netanyahu fighting bitterly for his political future, even as he faces three criminal indictments and possibly a public trial.
Hours after standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Trump at the White House on Jan. 28 as the plan was formally released, Netanyahu told reporters that he planned to bring a vote on annexation before his cabinet within days. At the same time, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman told reporters that the day and the timing was up to Israel.
“If Israelis apply Israeli law to the settlements and territory allocated to Israel under the plan … then we will recognize Israeli sovereignty,” he said.
Elhayani said that when he met with Netanyahu in Washington, the prime minister was very excited: “He said it was a historic time.”
Elhayani and other settler leaders also met with a senior U.S. official in Washington who told them that if the Palestinians did not accept the plan within 48 hours, Israel would be allowed to declare sovereignty over 30 percent of the West Bank.
“But something happened after that; they changed their minds,” Elhayani said.
Kushner, in interviews and reportedly in conversations with Israeli officials, put the brakes on, saying that the move should wait for a new government to be formed after next month’s vote.
“Under the plan as proposed, Israel is free to move forward with extending its sovereignty to the areas that would be under its control,” if the U.S.-proposed map were adopted, said Jon Lerner, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former Trump administration official.
“However, just because they are free to do so doesn’t mean that they should do so, or do so immediately, and I think that’s where the tension is.”
Kushner wants to give some breathing room for Arab, European and other governments to offer encouragement for negotiations under the plan, rather than giving those governments a reason to reject the plan right away, diplomats said.
Arab states also passed warnings to U.S. officials that immediate Israeli annexation could spark violence and leave Arab governments less room to offer diplomatic accommodations to Israel that are a main goal of the U.S. plan, two regional diplomats said. The diplomats spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal communications.
Friedman, the U.S. ambassador, walked back his annexation comments last week, saying the measure would require coordination with a joint American-Israeli committee. Analysts accused Netanyahu of jumping the gun in response to pressure from settlement groups, and his own defense minister, to enact the annexation measure immediately.
A senior Israeli official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter in more depth, said that Netanyahu had briefed reporters in Washington that he would raise the annexation matter at the next Israeli cabinet meeting, but that so far no cabinet meeting has been held since his return Friday.
The official said there have been discussions with the U.S. administration since 2017 on the issue of annexation, and the prime minister wanted to move forward with the administration’s support.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu appeared to reverse last week’s position, telling supporters at an election campaign rally that he would only ask the government to approve annexation steps after the election.
He said he would not let “such a great opportunity slip away” and that to foster such a step, “I need all Likud members to go out and vote.”
Contacted for a response, a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem said, “We don’t comment on internal discussions.”
The Palestinian leadership has rejected the plan out of hand as fatally biased in Israel’s favor. And signs that some of Israel’s Arab neighbors would support it, or at least remain neutral, were weakened when foreign ministers within the Arab League voted unanimously Saturday to reject it.
Now, with the schedule for Israel’s annexation plans growing more unclear, the effect of the long-awaited peace plan is also unclear.
Although Netanyahu has painted it as a moment of statesmanlike triumph and a political boost from his close ally Trump, right-wing leaders have demanded immediate action on their long-standing goal of annexing all the settlements dotted across a third of the West Bank and other parts of the territory as defined by the plan.
Elhayani said it was important to move forward with this part of the plan before the election because otherwise the process will be slowed down by an already dysfunctional political system, or worse.
If the results are not in Netanyahu’s favor after next month’s vote, the process would be managed by Netanyahu’s political rival Benny Gantz, head of the centrist Blue and White party.
Gantz, who also traveled to Washington to be briefed by Trump on the peace plan, said last week that he planned to bring the entire proposal to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, for approval.
If that happens, said Elhayani, the plan would most probably be nixed by lawmakers, because while it greenlights annexation, it also allows for the potential of a Palestinian state on 70 percent of the territory.
Calling for “sovereignty now,” settler leaders on Tuesday ramped up pressure on Netanyahu to move forward with annexing the Jordan Valley and the West Bank settlements, erecting several protest tents outside the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem.