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Trump Administration Says It's Up To Israel To Annex Parts Of West Bank


The U.N. secretary-general says the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at a watershed moment. As soon as next week, Israel could annex parts of the occupied West Bank. Many diplomats say this would undermine decades of international norms and prospects for Palestinian statehood. But the Trump administration may greenlight the move, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: At the United Nations today, European diplomats joined the secretary general in calling on Israel to abandon plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. They argued that such a move, however big or small, would violate U.N. resolutions and undermine the very idea of a viable Palestinian state. Palestinians are calling for an international conference to prevent Israel from carrying out what they call a colonialist plan. But at the State Department today, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a different perspective.


MIKE POMPEO: The decisions about Israeli and extending sovereignty to other places are decisions for the Israelis to make. And we are talking to all of the countries in the region about how it is we can manage this process forward.

KELEMEN: It's not just the Palestinians who are objecting. Jordan has said such a move could undermine its peace treaty with Israel. The ambassador from the United Arab Emirates warns that the unilateral annexation of West Bank territory would endanger Israel's warming ties with Gulf states like his.


YOUSEF AL-OTAIBA: This will be a setback that will undo a lot of the progress that we've seen.

KELEMEN: Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba was speaking to the Israel Policy Forum, a U.S.-based group that advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


AL-OTAIBA: And I think it's important to make sure people understand that, that you are putting some of your best partners and your best friends in very difficult situations. And then this goes beyond just the Palestinian-Israeli track. So I wanted to make sure everyone's clear about that.

KELEMEN: Otaiba was one of the only Arab diplomats who took part in the White House unveiling of Trump's vision for the Middle East. He says he's been raising his concerns about annexation with U.S. officials, but says their position seems to be, quote, "a work in progress." A former Obama administration official, Michele Flournoy, tells the Israel Policy Forum that both the U.S. and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu need to consider the concerns from Arab partners who support Palestinian aspirations for independence.


MICHELE FLOURNOY: You know, these countries may not be full-fledged democracies or democracies at all, but they do have to care about their street. And these leaders will not have the political maneuver room to continue investing in their relationship with Israel if Netanyahu and his government takes this kind of move.

KELEMEN: Flournoy, a former Pentagon official, says Israel has quietly built relations with security forces from Arab states. That's been good for U.S. security. She warns that any unilateral move by Israel now could undermine that cooperation and divide Americans about their views on Israel.


FLOURNOY: I hope that Prime Minister Netanyahu and those around him appreciate the degree to which they are playing with fire.

KELEMEN: Many governments are looking to the U.S. to send a clear signal to Israel on annexation, but the administration is still debating its next moves. The U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has publicly supported annexation while others have raised concerns about what this could do to regional security and U.S. relations with Arab partners.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.