Pence to visit Israel, even as Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party vows to annex West Bank settlements

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2018, 5:08am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2018, 10:14pm

US Vice-President Mike Pence will make good on his much-delayed promise to visit Israel this month, his office said on Monday – the same day that Israel’s ruling party vowed to annex controversial settlements on the West Bank.

Pence had originally planned to visit the Middle Eastern country in December but called off his visit, citing the Senate’s vote over President Donald Trump’s tax bill.

However, the decision also followed region-wide uproar over Trump’s decision to move America’s Israel embassy to Jerusalem – effectively recognising Israel’s claim to the occupied East Jerusalem in the face of UN disapproval.

If those two facts are connected, he may have further trouble when he does make the visit – which his office says is scheduled for January 14 – as there is likely to be further outcry over the new West Bank annexation claim.

Israel’s ruling Likud party, seemingly emboldened by Trump’s embassy decision, has unanimously endorsed annexing settlements made by Israelis in the West Bank area, which was seized from Jordan during the Six-Day War in 1967.

As the settlements were established in land that is currently under military occupation, they have been denounced as illegal by the international community.

But now Likud has unanimously endorsed a resolution calling for their annexation.

The decision marked the party’s latest step to distance itself from the internationally backed idea of establishing an independent Palestinian state as part of a future peace deal.

The Palestinians condemned the decision and accused Trump of emboldening the Likud party.

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The Central Committee is only an advisory body, and Sunday’s vote did not reflect an official policy change. But its decisions reflect the prevailing opinions in Netanyahu’s party.

Several leading politicians, including senior members of Netanyahu’s cabinet, joined the vote to “impose Israeli law on all liberated areas of settlement in Judea and Samaria.”

Among them were Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

Israeli prime minister and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, however. skipped the vote. His office declined to comment.

Erdan said the Likud party was responsible for annexing Jerusalem and the Golan Heights in the 1980s, and it would do so with West Bank settlements as well. “Our right to the land of Israel begins with Judea and Samaria,” he said.

“Two states for two peoples is a concept that has disappeared from the world,” Science Minister Ofir Akunis was quoted as saying by the Haaretz daily.

“And to my joy, US President Trump is sitting in the White House and does not accept this mistaken concept.”

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Trump has said he hopes to broker what he calls the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians, and he has appointed a high-level team, headed by his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, to come up with a peace plan. But after nearly a year on the job, they still have not floated a proposal.

Although Pence is expected to visit Israel on the week of January 14, there appears to be some disagreement over that claim.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Monday that the visit was no longer on its schedule for January.

“The visit is not included in our provision of scheduled visits of high-level dignitaries in January,” said ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon. He gave no reason for the apparent delay, but said it was still possible that Pence could decide to come.

Later on Monday, Pence’s deputy chief of staff, Jarrod Agen, said the visit was still on. “As we said, we are going later this month,” he said, without providing specific dates.

In the wake of Trump’s embassy announcement, the Palestinians, who seek Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their capital in a proposed state, cancelled a planned pre-Christmas meeting with Pence in the biblical town of Bethlehem.

Leading Muslim and Christian clerics in neighbouring Egypt also said they would refuse to meet with Pence during a planned stop in Cairo.

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Separately, a “projectile” fired on Monday from the Gaza Strip hit southern Israel without causing casualties or victims, the Israeli army said in a statement.

The army gave no further details, but public radio said a rocket had exploded near an Israeli town it did not identify.

Palestinian militants in Gaza have fired more than a dozen rockets or mortar rounds at Israel in violence that erupted after Trump’s controversial December 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The rockets are often fired by fringe Islamist groups, but Israel holds Gaza’s rulers Hamas responsible for any attacks from the territory and has repeatedly retaliated, targeting Hamas positions.