Netanyahu ally wants West Bank ‘cultivation’ now, not annexation

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top coalition partner wants Israel to shelve planned West Bank annexations and instead focus on improving conditions for Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the occupied territory, two cabinet ministers said on Friday.

Centrist ex-general Benny Gantz and the conservative Netanyahu agreed to begin discussing annexations as of July 1, but the plan — already dogged by diplomatic blow-back — has been sidelined by a resurgence of coronavirus.

Gantz says the health crisis should take precedence over any West Bank moves that may inflame conflict with the Palestinians. The Israeli-occupied West Bank is part of territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Netanyahu could go it alone in declaring Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank settlements and strategic Jordan Valley. But Gantz’s misgivings have complicated Israeli efforts to present a united front on annexations and how they might fit with U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan for Middle East peace.

While Gantz — whose popularity has plunged since he broke with an opposition alliance to join Netanyahu in March — has limited political clout, his role as defense minister also puts him directly in charge of civilian activities in the West Bank.

Alon Schuster, Israel’s agriculture minister and a member of Gantz’s Blue and White party, said he was working to achieve “cultivation and not annexation, now” for West Bank farmers.

“We need to bring water to the Jordan Valley — for both the Israelis and the Palestinians who live there, by the way — and to improve electricity,” Schuster told Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM. “Why quarrel and waste time? … I hope we expend our national resources on this.”

Another Blue and White minister said this was also Gantz’s approach, and that the party leader believed working on West Bank infrastructure shared by settlers and Palestinians would “enable coexistence in accordance with the Trump plan”.

Asked to respond, Netanyahu’s office declined comment.

The Palestinians have rejected the Trump plan, which envisages them gaining statehood in 70% of the West Bank, as a non-starter. European powers worry unilateral Israeli territorial moves could kill off long-moribund peacemaking.

Senior ministers from Netanyahu’s Likud party have urged annexation now. Some privately worry that Trump’s interest will wane as the U.S. election in November nears, and that should he lose, that would close a window of opportunity for annexation.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Netanyahu fate at stake as coalition deal challenged in top court

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s top court on Monday heard challenges to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid to secure a governing coalition, with opposition figures arguing a deal on a new unity administration would unlawfully shield him in a corruption trial.

The Supreme Court’s 11-justice panel convened for a second day after hearing separate petitions on Sunday against Netanyahu’s authority to form a government given his indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Rulings are expected by Thursday. Should the court find against Netanyahu on either front, it would likely trigger a snap election – the fourth since April 2019 – as the country grapples with the coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout.

Netanyahu and his main rival Benny Gantz signed an agreement last month to form a unity government under which they would take turns leading Israel after their three, inconclusive ballot runs. They cited the coronavirus crisis in forming the pact.

In power for more than a decade and currently head of a caretaker government, right-wing Netanyahu would serve as prime minister of a new administration for 18 months before handing the reins to centrist Gantz, according to the unity deal.

Netanyahu, 70, would then assume the role of “substitute prime minister”, which some analysts say would exempt him from a law that requires cabinet-level ministers to resign from public office if they are indicted on criminal charges.

Netanyahu’s trial is due to open on May 24. He has denied any wrongdoing and accused political rivals of a “witch-hunt”.

The coalition deal also grants Netanyahu influence over important judicial appointments, which critics argue gives the premier undue sway over the outcome of his own proceedings.

The pact has support from a majority in parliament. But several groups, including opposition parties and democracy watchdogs, petitioned the Supreme Court to nullify the deal, arguing in part that it shields Netanyahu from legal penalties.

Some analysts have said the court, though cast by Netanyahu loyalists as liberal and interventionist, was unlikely to strike down the deal or bar Netanyahu from forming a government.

Responding to the petitions, Israel’s Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit said that while certain aspects of the deal “raise major difficulties”, there were no grounds to disqualify it.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub, Editing by William Maclean)

Israel’s president tasks Netanyahu rival Gantz with forming government

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz received an official mandate on Monday to try to form Israel’s next government, and called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to join him in a unity administration.

In a sharp blow to Netanyahu, who had declared victory in a March 2 election, 61 of parliament’s 120 legislators voiced support for Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, in consultations with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday.

At a televised ceremony, Rivlin gave Gantz 28 days, with the option of a two-week extension, to assemble a ruling coalition.

But Gantz’s backers include opposing forces – the Joint List of Arab parties, and the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu faction led by former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman – that complicate efforts to form a viable government without wider support.

Netanyahu and Lieberman have proposed a six-month “national emergency government” grouping Blue and White and the prime minister’s right-wing Likud party, to confront the coronavirus crisis.

“I give you my word, I will do all in my ability to establish within a few days as broad and patriotic a government as possible,” Gantz said at the nomination ceremony, without going into details.

Israel has held three inconclusive elections in less than a year, and Netanyahu faces a criminal indictment on corruption charges, which he denies.

Gantz, who in failed coalition negotiations with Netanyahu after a national ballot in September insisted on serving first as prime minister in a “rotating” leadership arrangement, called on his rival to agree to a unity deal now.

“The time has come for an end to empty words,” Gantz said at the ceremony. “It’s time to set aside our swords and unite our tribes and defeat hatred.”

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Rami Ayyub and Mark Heinrich)

Israel’s Netanyahu orders schools closed, calls for unity government

Reuters
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday ordered most schools in the country closed as a precaution against coronavirus and called for the formation of an emergency national unity government.

“We are altering our internal routine in order to handle an outside threat, the threat of the virus,” Netanyahu said in broadcast remarks.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Editing by Stephen Farrell)

Israeli challenger Gantz plays character card against Netanyahu

By Dan Williams and Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Former military chief Benny Gantz portrays himself as a straight-shooter who will restore simple values to Israel if he wins power in the country’s third election in less than a year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man Gantz wants to oust in Monday’s election, once praised him as “an officer and a gentleman” when his government appointed him Chief of Staff of the armed forces eight years ago.

The tone is very different now.

Gantz, who leads the centrist Blue and White party, has been attacking Netanyahu’s character, mainly over corruption charges facing Israel’s longest-serving leader, and the prime minister’s right-wing Likud party has branded Gantz a weak leftist.

Netanyahu’s trial is set to begin on March 17, just two weeks after the election. Netanyahu, who at 70 is a decade older than Gantz, denies any wrongdoing, calling the investigation a witch-hunt.

“The man charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust has nothing to sell other than disseminated lies and slung mud,” Gantz tweeted about Netanyahu a week before the election. “Israel needs a full-time prime minister.”

But while Blue and White has talked up Gantz’s military background, Likud has sought to portray their opponent as soft on Iran and too conciliatory toward the Palestinians.

Gayil Talshir, a Hebrew University political scientist, said Israel still appeared to be split, reflecting the inconclusive outcome of elections in April and September last year in which neither party could form a ruling coalition.

Blue and White led Likud in opinion polls for weeks during this campaign but recent surveys have shown Likud pulling slightly ahead.

“The trial is super-important… the center and left in Israel is going against Netanyahu,” Talshir said. “But his (Netanyahu’s) own base is rallying around Netanyahu.”

‘PROPER CONDUCT’

Tall and athletic, with a fondness for folk singing and motorcycle riding, Gantz was a consensus figure for Israelis when chief of the conscript military between 2011 and 2015.

But what he would do in power is not entirely clear, as he has sent mixed messages.

He casts himself as more diplomatically accommodating than Netanyahu, urging redoubled efforts to restart peace talks.

But while Palestinians may prefer Gantz to Netanyahu, there is little fondness for him after two wars in the Gaza Strip, a self-governing Palestinian enclave, while Gantz was in charge of the Israeli military. About 2,300 Palestinians were killed in the fighting.

He has also publicly embraced U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan, which was rejected outright by the Palestinians for what they see as pro-Israel bias.

While Netanyahu holds rallies around the country exhorting his right-wing supporters to turn out, Gantz’s party believes some may be persuaded to peel away by a cross-partisan appeal to “proper conduct.”

“Our polls indicate that a considerable number of Likud supporters are unhappy with the situation and are wavering,” Yoaz Hendel, one of the party’s lawmakers, told Reuters. “They are part of our focus.”

Gantz’s “Mr Clean” image took a knock last week when police announced an investigation into the conduct of a now-defunct security consultancy that he chaired after he left the military.

Gantz is not a suspect in the case, but Netanyahu seized on it to try to undermine his less experienced opponent.

Gantz has also made occasional stumbles in campaign interviews, getting an interviewer’s name wrong and stammering slightly while collecting his thoughts.

Netanyahu has used these stumbles as ammunition to accuse Gantz as lacking the capacity for quick thinking.

“So I don’t speak like you. Big deal,” Gantz responded brusquely during a televised speech on Wednesday. “While you were taking acting classes in New York, I was defending this country.”

 

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Israel-Gaza ceasefire takes hold after two-day flare-up

GAZA (Reuters) – A ceasefire brokered by Egypt and the United Nations took hold on the Israel-Gaza border on Tuesday after two days of fighting between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group.

Islamic Jihad had fired 80 rockets towards Israeli communities along the Gaza border since Sunday, an Israeli military spokeswoman said, while Israel attacked sites in Gaza and Syria that killed three members of the militant group.

No casualties were reported on the Israeli side of the frontier and many of the rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile system.

The violence came a week before an Israeli election in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term in office after two inconclusive votes.

A Palestinian militant walks as he surveys an Islamic Jihad site that was targeted in an Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza Strip February 25, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

The frontier fell quiet early on Tuesday, after a Palestinian official said Israel and Islamic Jihad had reached a “reciprocal and simultaneous ceasefire” mediated by Egypt and the United Nations.

“This round is over and Palestinian resistance promised its people that every act of aggression by the Zionist occupation would be met by a reaction from the resistance,” Khader Habib, a senior Islamic Jihad official, told Reuters.

The Israeli military said it reopened roads near the Gaza border on Tuesday that it had closed when the fighting began and that train services would resume in the area.

But citing security concerns, the military kept Israel’s border crossings with Gaza closed, except for humanitarian cases, and banned Palestinian fisherman from heading to sea.

The violence erupted on Sunday when Israeli troops killed an Islamic Jihad member who the military said was trying to plant explosives near Israel’s border fence with the Gaza Strip.

Video widely shared on social media showed what appeared to be a lifeless body of the militant dangling from an Israeli military bulldozer as it removed the corpse.

The images created an uproar in Gaza, prompting calls for retaliation that were followed by rockets launched by Islamic Jihad.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Netanyahu announces plans for 3,000 new settler homes near East Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday he was reviving a plan for the construction of 3,000 new settler homes near East Jerusalem, a project effectively frozen after international opposition.

Netanyahu’s announcement, during an election campaign in which he has sought to shore up support from pro-settlement voters, was condemned by the Palestinians as another blow to their hopes for an independent state.

He has pledged to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and the area’s Jordan Valley as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan presented by U.S. President Donald Trump last month. Palestinians have rejected Trump’s blueprint as biased towards Israel.

Opponents of the project, in the Givat Hamatos area adjacent to the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa, said it would sever parts of East Jerusalem from the nearby Palestinian town of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

Construction of 2,610 housing units for Jews in Givat Hamatos was approved by a Jerusalem planning committee in 2014. The Israeli government effectively put the project on hold after the United States and the European Union criticized the plan.

Visiting an area overlooking the Israeli settlement of Har Homa on the outskirts of Jerusalem on Thursday, Netanyahu said in a video he posted on social media: “Today I approved the construction in Givat Hamatos” of 3,000 homes for Jews, of which 1,000 would be marketed soon.

He said some 1,000 housing units would be built for Arabs in Beit Safafa. No construction date was announced for either area.

In a separate project, Netanyahu said another 2,200 housing units would be built in Har Homa, located like Givat Hamatos in an area of the West Bank that Israel annexed to Jerusalem after the area’s capture in the 1967 Middle East war.

“Netanyahu’s insistence on building thousands of settlement units is the systematic destruction of the two-state solution and the implementation of the Trump plan,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said after the Israeli leader’s announcement.

Palestinians and much of the world view Israel’s settlements in areas seized in the 1967 conflict as illegal under international law, but the United States and Israel dispute this.

 

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. warns Israel against ‘unilateral’ West Bank moves

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A U.S. envoy warned Israel on Sunday not to declare sovereignty over West Bank land without Washington’s consent, pushing back against calls for immediate action by ultra-nationalists within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, unveiled on Jan 28, envisages Israel keeping key swathes of the occupied territory where Palestinians seek statehood. But the question of timing has opened up a rare rift between the allies.

Netanyahu initially pledged a speedy “application of Israeli law” – de facto annexation – to Jewish settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley, delighting his religious-rightist base ahead of Israel’s March 2 election, where he hopes to win a fifth term.

But he was forced to backpedal after the White House made clear it wanted a U.S.-Israeli mapping process – likely to take weeks or more – completed first.

A demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag as the Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit is seen in the background, during a protest against the U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, in the village of Bilin in the Israeli-occupied West Bank February 7, 2020. Picture taken February 7, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

The Palestinians, for their part, have rejected the Trump plan as a non-starter.

With Defence Minister Naftali Bennett and other Israeli ultra-nationalists urging an immediate cabinet vote on sovereignty in the West Bank, the U.S. ambassador intervened.

“Israel is subject to the completion (of) a mapping process by a joint Israeli-American committee. Any unilateral action in advance of the completion of the committee process endangers the Plan & American recognition,” envoy David Friedman tweeted.

In a separate speech, Friedman elaborated that his message was “a little bit of patience, to go through a process, to do it right, is not something which we think is too much to ask for”.

‘POTENTIALLY ADVERSE’

“With the news out that the (Israeli) cabinet was about to be pushed in a direction that was potentially adverse to our view of the process, we just let people know where we stand,” he told the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) think-tank.

“It was not a threat.”

In parallel, Netanyahu invoked the White House position.

“The (U.S.) recognition is the main thing and we don’t want to endanger that,” the premier told his cabinet on Sunday.

At the JCPA, Friedman said the mapping process was unlikely to be completed before March 2. But he held out the possibility of implementation even if the election does not produce a clear winner, as was the case twice in the last year.

Asked if Washington first wanted a permanent Israeli government – as opposed to a caretaker government of the kind Netanyahu has headed by default for months – in place, Friedman said: “We have not made that demand.”

Most countries consider Israeli settlements on land captured in the 1967 Middle East war to be a violation of international law. Trump has changed U.S. policy to withdraw such objections and the prospect of Israeli annexations have drawn widespread condemnation.

Palestinians say the settlements make a future state unviable. Israel cites security needs as well as biblical and historical ties to the land on which they are built.

“Any unilateral step is rejected whether it is taken before or after the election,” said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “Facts can’t be created on the ground and they will never become a reality.”

“The only thing we can accept is the Palestinian map on the 1967 borders,” Abu Rdainah added.

On Saturday, Netanyahu told an election rally that the mapping process with the Americans was already under way. “We’ve been waiting since 1967 and some people are making a big deal out of a few weeks,” he said, alluding to rightist rivals.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Mark Potter)

Palestinians decry Trump peace plan before he meets Israeli leaders

By Steve Holland and Dan Williams

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to disclose details of his Middle East peace plan to Israeli leaders on Monday as Palestinian officials decried it as a bid “to finish off” the Palestinian cause.

Trump will meet separately with right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist opposition leader Benny Gantz in Washington over his long-delayed proposals, which have been kept secret.

Palestinians fear the plan will dash their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Palestinian leaders say they were not invited to Washington and that no peace plan can work without them. Ahead of the U.S.-Israeli meetings, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said Trump and Netanyahu were using the plan as a distraction from their domestic troubles.

Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives last month and is on trial in the Senate on abuse of power charges. Netanyahu faces corruption charges and an national election on March 2, his third in less than a year. Both men deny wrongdoing.

“This plan is to protect Trump against being impeached and to protect Netanyahu from going to jail, and it is not a peace plan,” Shtayyeh said on Monday at a cabinet meeting in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“We reject it, and we demand the international community not be a partner to it because it contradicts the basics of international law and inalienable Palestinian rights,” he added.

“It is nothing but a plan to finish off the Palestinian cause.”

Neighboring Jordan, which along with Egypt is one of two Arab states that have peace treaties with Israel, said on Thursday that annexation of the occupied Jordan Valley – as Netanyahu has pledged to do – “will blow up the peace process”.

WASHINGTON MEETINGS

Trump’s initiative, whose principal author is his son-in-law Jared Kushner, follows a long line of efforts to resolve one of the world’s most intractable problems.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014. The United Nations and most governments around the world back a blueprint for a two-state solution – an independent Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel, the foundation of every peace plan for decades.

Trump hoped to release his own plan last year but was forced to delay as Netanyahu twice tried unsuccessfully to form a governing coalition after inconclusive elections.

After Monday’s meetings with Netanyahu and Gantz, Trump will on Tuesday deliver joint remarks with Netanyahu at the White House, where the president may reveal details of his proposal.

But whether it truly will jumpstart the long-stalled effort to bring Israelis and Palestinians together is far from certain.

Palestinians have refused to engage the Trump administration and denounced its first stage – a $50-billion economic revival plan announced last June.

The White House hope was that if Trump could get the support of both Netanyahu and Gantz for the plan, it would help provide some momentum. A U.S. official said Trump wants to know they are both on board with the plan before announcing it.

Gantz, Netanyahu’s principal domestic political rival, last week lifted his objection to having the plan published before Israel’s March election.

“I am looking forward to meeting the president – a president of utmost friendliness to the State of Israel – on a matter that is very important for the State of Israel – with national, strategic and security ramifications,” Gantz said as he landed in Washington on Sunday.

But Trump, preoccupied with November’s re-election bid, can ill afford to wait months for Israel to decide its next prime minister, a U.S. official said.

HONEST MEDIATOR?

Palestinians have called Trump’s proposal dead in the water even before its publication.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said Washington can no longer be regarded as an honest mediator, accusing it of pro-Israel bias. This followed a series of Trump decisions that delighted Israel but dismayed and infuriated Palestinians.

These included recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and slashing hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to

the Palestinians.

Palestinian and Arab sources who were briefed on the draft fear it seeks to bribe Palestinians into accepting Israeli occupation, in what could be a prelude to Israel annexing about half of the West Bank including most of the Jordan Valley, the strategic and fertile easternmost strip of the territory.

Continuing obstacles to a peace settlement include the expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied land and the rise to power in Gaza of the Islamist movement Hamas, which is formally committed to Israel’s destruction.

The Trump administration in November reversed decades of U.S. policy when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Washington no longer regarded Israeli settlements on West Bank land as inconsistent with international law.

Palestinians and most of the international community view the settlements as illegal. Israel disputes this.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Dan Williams; additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem and Ulf Laessing in Cairo, Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Angus MacSwan)

Trump to unveil long-stalled Middle East peace plan ahead of Israeli leaders’ visit

By Jeff Mason and Maayan Lubell

MIAMI/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday he will release details of his long-delayed peace plan for the Middle East before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his election rival Benny Gantz visit the White House next week.

The political aspects of the peace initiative have been closely guarded. Only the economic proposals have been unveiled.

Trump discussed the timing of the plan’s release with two architects of the plan, senior advisers Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz, on Air Force One while returning to Washington from Switzerland on Wednesday.

Speaking to reporters on Air Force One en route to the Miami area for a political event, Trump said Palestinians might react negatively to his plan at first, but that “it’s actually very positive for them.”

“It’s a great plan,” said Trump, who will meet with Netanyahu at the White House on Tuesday. “It’s a plan that really would work.”

Vice President Mike Pence, on a visit to Jerusalem, extended an invitation to Netanyahu and Gantz to make the visit. It was not immediately clear whether Trump would meet the two leaders separately or together.

The Trump Middle East peace proposal is a document, dozens of pages long, that addresses in detail the thorny political issues between Israel and the Palestinians, such as the status of Jerusalem.

U.S. officials made no mention of inviting the Palestinians, and Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said: “We warn Israel and the U.S. administration not to cross any red lines.”

Trump indicated his administration had spoken “briefly” to the Palestinians and would speak to them again “in a period of time.”

Netanyahu said he had accepted the U.S. invitation. His office said he would fly to the United States on Sunday. A Gantz spokesman did not respond when asked whether Gantz had accepted Trump’s invitation.

Netanyahu, a veteran right-wing Israeli leader, faces political and legal troubles at home – he is heading for his third election in less than a year, and was indicted on criminal charges in November. He denies any wrongdoing.

Israeli political analysts viewed Trump’s invitation as a boost to Netanyahu, his right-wing ally.

Netanyahu’s principal domestic political rival Gantz, a centrist former general, this week lifted his objection to having the peace plan be published before Israel’s March election. He had previously objected to it as interference in the vote.

LONG-DELAYED PLAN

The launch of Trump’s plan to end the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been delayed numerous times over the last two years.

A source familiar with the peace team’s thinking said bringing both Netanyahu and Gantz in on the details is aimed at defusing any suggestion that Trump might be favoring one Israeli candidate over another.

Trump is facing his own political clock, preoccupied with his bid for re-election in November, and could ill afford to wait for months for Israel to decide who its next prime minister will be, the source said.

“If we waited we could be in the same position four months from now and never put out the plan,” the source said.

The political proposal is the product of three years of work by Kushner, Berkowitz and former envoy Jason Greenblatt. Kushner proposed a $50 billion economic plan for the Middle East last July at a conference in Bahrain.

Kushner and Berkowitz had been scheduled to visit Israel and Saudi Arabia after attending the World Economic Conference in Davos, Switzerland, this week, but opted instead to discuss the issue with Trump on his flight home, the source said.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014 and Palestinians have called Trump’s proposal dead in the water, even before its publication, citing what they see as his pro-Israel policies.

The Trump administration has reversed decades of U.S. policy on the conflict, refraining from endorsing the two-state solution – the longtime international formula which envisages a Palestinian state co-existing with Israel.

It has also recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there. More recently, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in November that the United States no longer viewed Israel’s settlements on West Bank land as “inconsistent with international law”.

Palestinians and most of the international community view the settlements as illegal under international law. Israel disputes this, citing historical, biblical and political ties to the land, as well as security needs.

Netanyahu announced during an election campaign last September that he intends to annex the Jordan Valley, a large swathe of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Israel captured the West Bank in a 1967 war and Palestinians, who signed interim peace deals with Israel in the 1990s, seek to make the area part of a future state.

Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, has publicly refused to engage politically with the Trump administration.

They fear the plan will dash their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Trump, who will seek a second term in a Nov. 3 election, faces his own problems at home with Democrats seeking to oust the Republican president on impeachment charges of abusing power and obstructing Congress.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason in Miami and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Ali Sawafta in Bethlehem, and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Howard Goller)