Emboldened by a supportive White House, Israel appears to be barreling toward a showdown with the international community over its half-century-old settlement enterprise in the West Bank.
With the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court poised to launch a war crimes probe of Israel's settlement policies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday announced plans to move ahead with the potentially explosive annexation of large parts of the occupied West Bank, including dozens of Jewish settlements. He spoke in Washington as President Donald Trump unveiled a Mideast peace plan that matches Netanyahu's nationalistic stance and undercuts Palestinian ambitions.
This confluence of forces could make 2020 the year that finally provides clarity on the status of Israeli settlements and the viability of a two-state solution.
"History is knocking at the door," Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, a patron of the settler movement, said as he urged Netanyahu to immediately annex all of Israel's settlements and snuff out any hopes for Palestinian independence.
"Now the campaign is moving from the White House to the Cabinet room in Jerusalem," he said. "Take everything now."
The Palestinians want the West Bank as the core of a future independent state and see the settlements there — home to nearly 500,000 Israelis — as obstacles to their dream of independence. The international community backs this view and overwhelmingly considers the settlements to be illegal.
Since capturing the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war, Israel has slowly and steadily expanded its settlements while stopping short of annexing the territory. The international community condemned the construction as illegal but has refrained from imposing sanctions or serious punishment.
This status quo began to change after Trump took office in early 2017. Surrounded by a team of advisers with close ties to the settlement movement, Trump took a more sympathetic line toward Israel and halted the automatic criticism of settlements of his predecessors. This resulted in a surge of Israeli construction plans that are just getting underway.
"Over the next year and certainly two years, we're going to see a sharp increase" in the settler population, said Baruch Gordon, director of West Bank Jewish Population Stats, a settler group. In its annual report, the group said the West Bank settler population grew last year to 463,353 people, in addition to some 300,000 settlers living in Israel-annexed east Jerusalem.
"We're here and we're not going anywhere," he said.
The major turning point for Israel was in November, when the U.S. declared that it did not consider settlements to be illegal. That landmark decision appears to have played a key role in Netanyahu's announcement that he plans to annex the Jordan Valley, a strategic area of the West Bank, and Israel's more than 100 settlements.
Ironically, this warm U.S. embrace could prove to be Netanyahu's undoing. Moving ahead with annexations is likely to trigger harsh international condemnations and possible legal action.
Last month, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, declared there is a "reasonable basis" to believe that settlement construction constitutes a war crime. Pending final approval from the court, she intends to open a formal investigation, a process that could cause deep embarrassment and discomfort for Israeli leaders.
Yuval Shany, an expert on international law at the Israel Democracy Institute, said annexation would "significantly" raise the risk of triggering prosecution at the ICC. Settlements are widely viewed as illegal based on the Geneva Convention principle that an occupying power is barred from transferring its population into war-won territories.
"That could be a relatively low-hanging fruit for the prosecutor to identify a specific act that is either part of the transfer or significantly aids and abets that transfer," he said.
While Israel does not accept the court's authority, Netanyahu appears to be taking the threat of prosecution seriously. He has launched harsh attacks against Bensouda and the court, saying the case against Israel is "pure anti-Semitism." He also has tried, with limited success, to rally international opposition to the ICC.
The Palestinians joined the ICC in 2015 after they were accepted as a nonmember state at the United Nations. They then asked the court to look into alleged Israeli crimes in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, retroactive to 2014.
The date coincided with Israel's devastating war in the Gaza Strip. In her announcement last month, Bensouda said her probe would look at Israeli military practices as well as the actions of Hamas militants during the 2014 war, in addition to settlement activity.
Shany said Israel is much more vulnerable on the settlement issue than it is with regard to Gaza. Israel's military has mechanisms to investigate alleged wrongdoing by its troops, and despite criticism that this system is insufficient, it has a good chance of fending off the ICC. When it comes to settlements, however, Israel will have a difficult time defending its actions.
While the court would have a hard time prosecuting Israelis, it could issue arrest warrants that would make it difficult for Israeli officials to travel abroad. A case in the ICC would also be deeply embarrassing to the government, Shany said.
"The big white whale is the settlements," he said. "That would be a major PR disaster for the country."
A senior Israeli minister said on Wednesday that a Cabinet vote to endorse annexation of parts of the West Bank will not take place early next week, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's pledge a day earlier to act quickly after the U.S. released a plan to end the conflict that was rejected by the Palestinians.
Netanyahu said he would ask the Cabinet to advance the extension of Israeli sovereignty over most Jewish settlements and the strategic Jordan Valley, a move that would likely spark international outrage and complicate the White House's efforts to build support for the plan.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin told Israel Radio that a Cabinet vote on annexing territories on Sunday was not technically feasible because of various preparations, including "bringing the proposal before the attorney general and letting him consider the matter."
The Palestinians angrily rejected the Trump plan, which largely adopts the Israeli position on all the thorniest issues of the decades-old conflict, from borders and the status of Jerusalem to security measures and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Levin, a senior member of Netanyahu's Likud party, said the Palestinian state envisioned by the Trump plan is "roughly the same Palestinian Authority that exists today, with authority to manage civil affairs," but lacking "substantive powers" like border control or a military.
The Trump administration had hoped to rally Arab countries around the plan, but so far reactions have been mixed. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, key U.S. allies, welcomed the effort and encouraged negotiations without commenting on the plan itself.
Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel, has warned against any Israeli "annexation of Palestinian lands," reaffirming its commitment to an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with east Jerusalem as its capital.
The head of the Arab League said Wednesday that an initial study of the 50-page plan showed that it "ignored legitimate Palestinian rights in the territories."
Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said the Palestinian response would be key in shaping a "collective Arab position" on the plan.
"Achieving a just and sustainable peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians depends on the will of both sides," he said. "The peace plan announced by the U.S. president reflected a non-binding U.S. vision."
The Palestinians seek the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, as part of a future independent state. Most of the international community considers Israel's West Bank settlements illegal under international law.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Jerusalem is "sacred" for Muslims and that any plan that would give "Jerusalem to Israel will never be acceptable." Erdogan told reporters the measures announced by Trump amounted to a "legalization of Israel's occupation" of Palestinian territories.
"The plan that was announced will not serve peace or a solution," the state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Erdogan as saying.
Hard-line Israeli nationalists have meanwhile called for the immediate annexation of West Bank settlements ahead of the country's third parliamentary elections in under a year, scheduled for March 2.
They have eagerly embraced the part of President Donald Trump's peace plan that would allow Israel to annex territory but have rejected its call for a Palestinian state in parts of the occupied West Bank.
Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted Wednesday that "that which is postponed to after the elections will never happen."
"If we postpone or reduce the extension of sovereignty (in the West Bank), then the opportunity of the century will turn into the loss of the century," said Bennett, a hawkish Netanyahu ally with the New Right party.
Nahum Barnea, a veteran Israeli columnist, stridently criticized the Trump plan in Wednesday's Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth, saying it would create a Palestinian state "more meager than Andorra, more fractured than the Virgin Islands."
He cautioned that annexation would lead to "a reality of two legal systems for two populations in the same territory — one ruling, the second occupied. In other words, an Apartheid state."
A top US commander said on Monday mortars were used in an attack on the American embassy in Baghdad that injured one person and caused some material damage the previous night, not katyusha rockets as was initially reported by staffers and a statement from the military.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, a top U.S. commander for the Middle East, told reporters traveling with him that the mortar attack started a fire that was put out. He said no U.S. military members were injured, but that one U.S. national received a minor injury but has returned to work.
The two staff members of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media, said initially it had been rockets that slammed into a restaurant inside the American compound.
The U.S. Embassy is within the Iraqi capital's Green Zone, and has been a flashpoint amid wider regional tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which have played out inside Iraq in recent weeks. Iraqi supporters of an Iran-backed militia stormed the embassy compound on Dec. 31, smashing the main door and setting fire to the reception area.
Violence between Iraqi security forces and anti-government protesters also continued to seethe overnight, with one protester shot dead in a violent crackdown in the country's south. Unrest was also ongoing in the capital, with new clashes erupting Monday near the central Khilani and Wathba squares, where security forces fired tear gas and live bullets to disperse crowds.
Embassies from sixteen Western countries, including the U.S., issued a joint statement condemning the "excessive and lethal use of force" by Iraqi security forces and armed groups over the past three days against "peaceful protesters, including in Baghdad, Nasiriyah and Basra."
The statement called on the government to investigate all reported deaths of protesters since Oct. 1, when the unrest began.
At least 22 protesters were wounded, five due to live fire, security and medical officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Security forces also chased after demonstrators and beat them.
A member of the security forces overpowered a female anti-government protester, dragged her by the hair and pinned her down outside Baghdad's municipality building. The incident, captured by an Associated Press photographer, was a rare occurrence in the largely male-dominated front-lines of the demonstrations.
The security personnel conducted a search of the female protester and tore off a protective face mask she was wearing as a witness threw stones.
Iraq has been roiled by over four months of demonstrations over government corruption, high unemployment and Iranian influence in Iraqi politics. Security forces have killed at least 500 protesters. The country is also facing a political clash over naming the next prime minister, after Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi resigned.
An initial military statement said at least five katyusha rockets had landed inside the Green Zone late Sunday. It was the third attack targeting the U.S. Embassy this month, and the perpetrators were not immediately known. Perpetrators had used katyusha rockets in previous attacks and caused no injuries.
There was no claim of responsibility for any of the attacks. But the U.S. has accused Iran-backed militias of targeting U.S. interests by attacking military bases housing Americans and diplomatic missions.
Abdul-Mahdi condemned the attack in a statement, asserting Iraq's commitment to protecting diplomatic missions in the country.
In the south, a protester was killed amid a violent pre-dawn crackdown by security forces on a protest camp in the city of Nasiriyah, an activist and a medical official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Police fired live rounds to disperse crowds from a central square in Nasiriyah where protesters were staging a sit-in, prompting demonstrators to flee. The encampment site was later burned. It was not immediately clear whether security forces or unknown groups had torched it. The city has been a center of unrest since the protests began.
Iraqi Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr on Friday called for a scheduled withdrawal of US troops from Iraq through peaceful means.
Al-Sadr made the call in a letter sent to a massive rally of Iraqis in al-Jaderiyah district, central Baghdad. "We will try to pursue all peaceful political, economic, social, cultural and popular means," the leader said.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis, mainly al-Sadr's followers, gathered to reject the presence of US troops in Iraq, in response to an earlier call by al-Sadr.
If the primary goal, which is to schedule the withdrawal of the US forces, is fulfilled, the peaceful means will continue until full withdrawal is realized, al-Sadr said in the letter.
He said full withdrawal can only be achieved by closing all American military bases on Iraqi soil, closing the headquarters of American security companies and ending their work in Iraq, and closing the Iraqi airspace to the military and intelligence flights of the U.S. forces.
He also called on cancelling all security agreements with the United States due to the absence of an international balance in them since concluded, and they were approved during the years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq after 2003.
Referring to the sporadic attacks on facilities and military bases housing U.S. troops, al-Sadr pledged a "pause of all resistance" until the withdrawal of the last U.S. soldier from Iraq.
"We will try to do our utmost not to throw Iraq into another war with the unjust occupier who perched on the chest of Iraq," al-Sadr said.
The Iraqi parliament passed a resolution requiring the government to end the presence of foreign forces in Iraq on Jan. 5, two days after a U.S. drone strike on a convoy at Baghdad airport which killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy chief of Iraq's paramilitary Hashd Shaabi forces.
Over 5,000 U.S. troops have been deployed in Iraq to support the Iraqi forces in the battles against Islamic State militants, mainly providing training and advising to the Iraqi forces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin landed in Israel on Thursday for a one-day visit during which he will take part in the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.
Putin was welcomed in the Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv in an official ceremony by Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz and other officials.
The president is expected to hold meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin.
He also plans to meet Yaffa Issachar, mother of Naama Issachar, a 27-year-old Israeli woman jailed in Moscow over drug charges.
The meeting comes amidst reports on Russian authorities preparing for her early release after the case sparked a wide protest in Israel.
Issachar, a backpacker who was on her way home after a trip in India, was arrested during transit through a Moscow airport. Russian authorities said 9.6 grams of marijuana were found in her backpack, which she says was not belong to her.
In October, she was sentenced for 7.5 years in prison over "drug trafficking."
Putin is also scheduled to attend a dedication ceremony of a monument honoring the veterans and victims of the siege of Leningrad in Gan Sacher in Jerusalem together with Rivlin and Netanyahu.