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Ahead of Washington visit, Bennett pledges growth of Israeli settlements

CM 25/08/2021 1

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Two days ahead of his first meeting with US President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said he will neither annex West Bank territory nor permit it to become a Palestinian state, although he does plan to continue construction in settlements. 
In his first interview published on Tuesday with an international media organization since taking over from Benjamin Netanyahu in June, Bennett, who is expected to arrive in Washington on Tuesday night, told The New York Times that the left-to-right composition of his coalition government meant that major diplomatic moves in either direction are off the table for now. 
“This government will neither annex nor form a Palestinian state, everyone gets that,” he said. “I’m prime minister of all Israelis, and what I’m doing now is finding the middle ground — how we can focus on what we agree upon.”

Netanyahu had considered annexation under the terms of a peace agreement proposed by the Trump administration but rejected outright by the Palestinians. Congressional Democrats, including some who are pro-Israel, fired back that annexing parts of the West Bank would significantly harm US-Israel relations. 
Bennett vowed that his government would extend a long-time Israeli policy of “natural growth” in existing settlements in the West Bank. The settlements are a sensitive topic as critics consider them to be illegal under international law and an obstacle to the establishment of a future Palestinian state. 
Bennett went on to state that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, but did he not explicitly say whether he would attempt to block Biden’s plan to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem pledged to the Palestinians that had been shut down by the Trump administration.  
The high-level meeting between Bennett and Biden is set to take place on Thursday, five days before the latter’s August 31 deadline to finish the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, widely considered to be Biden’s most significant foreign policy crisis since taking office on January 20.
Meanwhile, Bennett reportedly hopes to focus on Iran, using the window of opportunity to convince Biden that there are better alternatives to rejoining the 2015 nuclear agreement.
Bennett will also meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, all of whom are closely working to evacuate remaining Americans from Afghanistan.

JTA contributed to this report. 


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