German FM warns Israel against West Bank annexation plans

JERUSALEM (AP) — Germany’s foreign minister on Wednesday warned Israel that its plan to begin annexing parts of the West Bank would violate international law, but he offered no details on how Germany or Europe would respond.

The visit to Jerusalem — Heiko Maas’ first trip outside of Europe since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic — came just weeks before Israel intends to extend its sovereignty over Jewish West Bank settlements, in line with President Donald Trump’s controversial Mideast plan.

The annexation plan has come under harsh criticism from some of Israel’s closest allies, including Germany, who say that unilaterally redrawing the Mideast map would destroy any lingering hopes for establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The Palestinians seek all of the occupied West Bank, captured by Israel in 1967, as part of a future independent state.

Speaking at a news conference, Maas said Germany and the European Union pointed out that Europe considers annexation incompatible with international law. But he said the Europeans were still seeking a dialogue with Israel to learn more about its plans and said there were no immediate threats to punish Israel.

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“I didn’t set up any price tags,” he said. “We still believe the negotiated two-state solution is the right way, that annexation will not make this solution more probable.”

Later, during a stop in neighboring Jordan, said he and his Jordanian counterpart agreed “we now need to prevent annexation and to make sure to revive negotiations.”

Germany, already a key European power broker, will be taking over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union and assuming the presidency of the U.N. Security Council on July 1, the same day Israel says it may begin unfurling its plan.

Maas’ comments added to an international chorus of condemnations of the annexation plan. Key Arab countries, including Egypt and Jordan, the only Arab nations with peace agreements with Israel, have harshly criticized it. So has Saudi Arabia, a major country that maintains covert behind-the-scenes ties with Israel.

The 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation held a virtual meeting Wednesday and condemned the Israeli plan.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, who chaired the meeting, called the plan “a dangerous escalation that threatens chances of resuming the peace process” and urged all Muslim leaders to take a unified stance against what he called Israeli aggression.

Canada, which has close relations with Israel, has also voiced its opposition to annexation plans. Canada’s diplomatic office in Ramallah wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that it was “deeply concerned” and that such a move “would be damaging to peace, and we oppose it.”

The European Union also has made clear that it is opposed to annexation and considers it illegal under international law. For now, diplomats are trying to engage Israeli officials and convey the message that unilateral annexation would have negative repercussions on relations. They have not indicated how the EU might respond.

“I made clear that the German government and the colleagues in the EU are very worried that annexation can lead to the two-state solution no longer being viable and that we are on the wrong path,” Maas said. “It’s the time of diplomacy and dialogue.”

Ashkenazi, a former military chief who recently assumed his post with the establishment of a new Israeli government, claimed the Trump plan has its upsides and presents an opportunity.

“The plan will be pursued responsibly,” he said. “We intend to do it in a dialogue with our neighbors,” mentioning Jordan, among others.

Maas also met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister told Maas that “any realistic plan needs to recognize the reality of Israeli settlement on the ground, and not nurture the illusion of uprooting people from their homes.”

Later in the day, Maas traveled to Jordan, which borders both Israel and the West Bank. There he met with his Jordanian counterpart and held a conference call with Palestinian leaders. Israel blocked him from traveling to the West Bank, citing coronavirus restrictions even while allowing Palestinian laborers to cross into and out of Israel.

While reiterating his opposition to unilateral Israeli annexation, Maas also urged the Palestinians to avoid taking unilateral actions in response. “Both endanger the stability in the region and carry a large, large potential for escalation,” he said in Amman.

The U.S. plan envisions leaving about one third of the West Bank under permanent Israeli control, while granting the Palestinians expanded autonomy in the remainder of the territory. The Palestinians, who seek all of the West Bank as part of an independent state, have rejected the plan, saying it overwhelmingly favors Israel.

In response, they have cut off key security ties with Israel and say they are no longer bound to agreements signed. The moves have raised concerns of a return to violence if annexation is carried out. Israel’s defense minister has urged the military to hasten preparations for what could be fierce Palestinian protests.

The proposal also faces opposition within Israel, where many fear that annexation is a step that could lead to the creation of a single bi-national state with the Palestinians. Even some hard-line settlers oppose the plan, saying it doesn’t annex enough land. They also oppose the establishment of any Palestinian state.

But Netanyahu appears eager to press forth before the U.S. election in November, when Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee who has said he opposes annexation, could replace Trump.

Netanyahu has lauded Trump’s nearly blanket support for his policies and hailed annexation as a historic opportunity to establish Israel’s permanent borders and retain control of strategic frontiers without having to evacuate a single settler. Previous peace plans have all included calls for far greater Israeli concessions.

Netanyahu made annexation a key campaign pledge before the country’s recent election and conditioned his otherwise equally divided government with Gantz upon having a final say on the matter.

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Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

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