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Trump's Middle East Peace Plan Met With Objections By Netanyahu Supporters


The long-awaited U.S. plan for peace in the Middle East favored Israel, should have been a boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who's running for reelection next month. Instead, it has led to mixed signals from the White House and disappointment among Netanyahu supporters over one of the key campaign issues - the annexation of Israeli settlements. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The day before President Trump presented his peace plan a couple weeks ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu huddled with leaders of Israel's settler movement who were with him in Washington.

DAVID ALHAYANI: I never saw him so excited. It is a historic time. He was very excited.

ESTRIN: David Alhayani (ph) chairs the settler leadership council. The next day, Trump made the big announcement about the peace plan. The Palestinians would have to meet steep conditions to eventually get a disjointed state still with Israeli security control. But Israel would get to annex about 30% of the occupied West Bank right away. Standing next to Trump, Netanyahu said...


PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Israel will apply its laws to the Jordan Valley, to all the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and to other areas that your plan designates as part of Israel and which the United States has agreed to recognize as part of Israel.


ESTRIN: Here's one territory he's talking about claiming - the Jordan Valley. Alhayani showed me a stunning view of it from his office balcony.

ALHAYANI: You can see this is Jordan. Between the hills is the Jordan River.

ESTRIN: It's a strategic spot for Israel, near the border with Jordan and filled with chalky desert mountains and palm trees full of Medjool dates. Alhayani objects to the word annexation, saying it sounds like taking land that isn't yours. He calls it applying Israeli sovereignty. Either way, it would be an explosive move that Palestinians see as killing off the quest for a state of their own. The first setback for Netanyahu was that the U.S. gave mixed signals. David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, said annexation could begin right away. Then presidential adviser Jared Kushner told GZERO media, not so fast.


JARED KUSHNER: The hope is that they'll wait till after the election, we'll work with them to try to come up with something.

ESTRIN: The election is March 2, and he said it would take months to map out the areas Israel would get. The hold up could be that Kushner doesn't want to alienate Arab leaders he hopes will support the plan. And there's another thing - Israel has had two inconclusive elections in the last year. And Netanyahu is neck and neck with a centrist rival who doesn't want to rush in to annexation. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

DAN SHAPIRO: Trump would not have rolled this plan out when he did if he didn't think it would provide some benefit to Netanyahu. But it was also clear that he can't be sure Netanyahu is actually going to remain prime minister.

ESTRIN: Settler leaders were furious. They say the White House is holding Netanyahu back. Alhayani accuses Kushner of sabotage.

ALHAYANI: Don't take a knife and put it in the back of Netanyahu. Maybe Netanyahu will lose the election because of it.

ESTRIN: Annexation is Netanyahu's central election pledge to his right wing and settler supporters. Now settlers fear it may never happen.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

ESTRIN: Hundreds of young settlers rallied this week outside the prime minister's residence, demanding he ignore the White House and declare Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank immediately.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

ESTRIN: They chant, sovereignty now. Netanyahu's office and the White House won't confirm it, but settler leader Alhayani says Netanyahu is lobbying the Trump administration to compromise on a mini annexation before elections; that is, annexing one small part of the West Bank. That would still meet loud objections from most of the international community and the Palestinians. But the settler leader says it would be an election boost for Netanyahu.

ALHAYANI: Maybe just the Jordan Valley - something, something - one step, one step. If not, I'm afraid that we will lose the election.

ESTRIN: All this doubt over Netanyahu's central campaign pledge is far from what he was hoping for as he struggles to stay in office. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, the West Bank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.