US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday it is up to Israel to make its own decisions on whether to annex settlements in the occupied West Bank, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to do despite international opposition.
Speaking to reporters ahead of Netanyahu's July 1 target date, Pompeo said extending Israeli sovereignty was a decision "for Israelis to make."
Senior aides to US President Donald Trump began discussions on Tuesday on whether to give Netanyahu the green light for annexation, which has drawn condemnation from the Palestinians, US Arab allies and a number of other foreign governments.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday urged Israel to abandon plans to annex parts of the West Bank, warning this threatened prospects for peace with the Palestinians.
Under Trump’s Middle East peace proposal, unveiled in January, it is envisaged that the United States would recognize the Jewish settlements - built on land that the Palestinians seek for a state - as part of Israel.
The proposal would create a Palestinian state as part of a broader peace plan but impose strict conditions on it. Palestinian leaders have dismissed the initiative entirely.
Encouraged by Trump's push, Netanyahu intends to launch his project of extending sovereignty over the settlements and the Jordan Valley, hoping for US approval. Most countries view Israel's settlements as illegal, and Palestinian leaders have voiced outrage at the prospect of annexation.
While sharply criticizing the Palestinian leadership for rejecting Trump's "vision for peace," Pompeo did not provide any signs of where the administration stands on the specifics of Netanyahu's plan. Pompeo is expected to join further White House discussions on the issue this week, and Trump could also take part.
Among the main options under US consideration is a gradual, step-by-step process in which Israel would initially declare sovereignty over several settlements close to Jerusalem instead of the 30% of the West Bank envisaged in Netanyahu’s original plan, according to a person close to matter.
The Trump administration has not closed the door to a larger annexation but fears that allowing Israel to move too fast could kill any hopes of eventually drawing the Palestinians into talks on Trump's plan, the source said.
There are also concerns about opposition from Jordan, one of only two countries that have a peace treaty with Israel, and from Gulf states that have quietly expanded engagement with Israel.