White House shuts down Netanyahu claim of US-Israel settlement talks

JERUSALEM, Feb 12 (Reuters) - The United States dismissed as false an Israeli assertion on Monday that the two countries were discussing the possibility of Israel annexing Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, in a rare display of discord between U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"On the subject of applying sovereignty, I can say that I have been talking to the Americans about it for some time," Netanyahu told a closed-door meeting of his right-wing Likud party's legislators, according to the party's spokesman.

Netanyahu was referring to applying Israeli law to the settlements, a step tantamount to annexation. They are currently under the jurisdiction of Israel's military, which has occupied the West Bank since the 1967 war.

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A Palestinian demonstrator moves a burning tire during clashes with Israeli troops during clashes near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, in the occupied West Bank February 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
A Palestinian demonstrator reacts during clashes with Israeli troops near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, in the occupied West Bank February 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
Palestinian demonstrators take cover during clashes with Israeli troops near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, in the occupied West Bank February 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
Yael Shevach, wife of Israeli Rabbi Raziel Shevach, mourns during his funeral in the Havat Gilad settlement outpost, West Bank January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Female protesters hurl stones towards Israeli troops during clashes at a protest marking the 69th anniversary of Nakba, near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
A Palestinian protester jumps over burning tyres during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest marking the 69th anniversary of Nakba, near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
Palestinian protesters swing as they rest at a park during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah May 11, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Family and friends mourn around the fresh graves of Haya, Elad and Yossi, three members of the Salomon family who were killed in a stabbing attack Friday night in the Jewish settlement of Neve Tsuf, in the occupied West Bank, in Modiin, Israel July 23, 2017 REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
A Palestinian man leads sheep across a road near a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, in the occupied West Bank February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
A general view picture shows home in the Israeli outpost of Palgey Maim, in the occupied West Bank February 6, 2017. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Girls walk in a playground on a stormy day in the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit in the occupied West Bank February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
An Israeli soldier stands inside a guarding booth covered in posters with texts in Hebrew reading "Prime Minister, we bid you farewell and upon your return - sovereignty!" at a junction in the Gush Etzion Israeli settlement block in the occupied West Bank February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
A demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag as Israeli soldiers stand guard during a protest against Jewish settlements in Jordan Valley near the West Bank city of Jericho November 17, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
Demonstrators hang a Palestinian flag during a protest against Jewish settlements in Jordan Valley near the West Bank city of Jericho November 17, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
Israeli teenagers walk on graffiti reading in Hebrew "Soldier, policeman, refuse orders" as they prepare for an expected eviction of the Jewish settlement outpost of Amona in the West Bank, December 9, 2016. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
A Palestinian protester throws back a tear gas canister fired by Israeli troops during clashes following a protest against the near-by Jewish settlement of Qadomem, in the West Bank village of Kofr Qadom near Nablus February 3, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A wounded Palestinian is helped during clashes with Israeli troops following a protest against the nearby Jewish settlement of Qadomem, in the West Bank village of Kofr Qadom, near Nablus July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
Palestinian protesters run for cover during clashes with Israeli troops following a protest against the nearby Jewish settlement of Qadomem, in the West Bank village of Kofr Qadom, near Nablus July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Palestinian protesters are seen during clashes with Israeli troops as Palestinians call for a "day of rage" in response to U.S. President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
A Palestinian protester is seen as smoke rises from burning tires during clashes with Israeli troops as Palestinians call for a "day of rage" in response to U.S. President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
A Palestinian protester uses a sling to hurl stones towards Israeli troops during clashes as Palestinians call for a "day of rage" in response to U.S. President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
A Palestinian protester hurls stones towards Israeli troops during clashes as Palestinians call for a "day of rage" in response to U.S. President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
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Later on Monday, the White House denied having such discussions and a senior Israeli official said Netanyahu had not made a specific annexation proposal to Washington.

"Reports that the United States discussed with Israel an annexation plan for the West Bank are false," White House spokesman Josh Raffel said. "The United States and Israel have never discussed such a proposal, and the president’s focus remains squarely on his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative."

Some commentators suggested Netanyahu's remarks to Likud might have been a move to placate right-wingers in his cabinet rather than a concrete plan.

But the statement stoked Palestinian anger, already high over Trump's Dec. 6 announcement that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital, a reversal of decades of U.S. policy.

Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said any annexation would "destroy all efforts to try and save the peace process."

"No-one has the right to discuss the situation of the occupied Palestinian lands," Abu Rdainah said from Moscow, where Abbas was holding talks with President Vladimir Putin amid reports they may discuss new options for Middle East mediation.

Most countries regard Israel's settlements as illegal. Israel disputes this.

NO TIMEFRAME

The Likud spokesman did not mention a timeframe for an annexation or go into further details on the U.S. discussions. He quoted Netanyahu as telling the lawmakers that any change in the settlements' status must first be coordinated, "as much as possible" with the United States, Israel's main ally.

A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, later said in a statement that Netanyahu had not presented the United States with specific annexation proposals "and anyway the U.S. has not expressed its agreement to the proposals."

"Israel updated the Americans about different proposals being raised at the Knesset and the U.S. expressed its clear position that it wishes to advance President Trump's peace plan," a statement from Netanyahu's office said.

An Israel Radio political affairs commentator described Netanyahu's comments as largely ideological in nature and said it was unlikely any practical steps would be taken in the near future.

Netanyahu's comments to the legislators appeared, at least in part, to be an attempt to soften any political fallout within Likud over his decision on Sunday to block a bill proposed by several right-wing lawmakers to annex settlements.

A source at the prime minister's office said on Sunday the bill was blocked in order to give diplomatic efforts more of a chance.

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U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Donald Trump, right, speaks while Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli's prime minister, smiles during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. Netanyahu is trying to recalibrate ties with Israel's top ally after eight years of high-profile clashes with former President Barack Obama, in part over Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.

(Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves the White House after a meeting with President Donald Trump in Washington, U.S., February 15, 2017.

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

U.S. President Donald Trump, speaks during a news conference with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli's prime minister, not pictured, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. Netanyahu is trying to recalibrate ties with Israel's top ally after eight years of high-profile clashes with former President Barack Obama, in part over Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.

(Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump (2ndR) and first lady Melania Trump meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara (L) in the Oval Office of White House in Washington, U.S., February 15, 2017.

(REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Chief strategist to US President Donald Trump arrives for a joint press conference by Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the East Room of the White House on February 15, 2017 in Washington, DC.

(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner (L) and his wife Ivanka Trump talk with Sara Netanyahu (front L) as she arrives for a joint press conference between U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 15, 2017.

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli's prime minister, speaks during a news conference with U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. Netanyahu is trying to recalibrate ties with Israel's top ally after eight years of high-profile clashes with former President Barack Obama, in part over Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.

(Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves following meetings with US President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017.

(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump smiles outside the West Wing of the White House as Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, not pictured, departs in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. Netanyahu is trying to recalibrate ties with Israel's top ally after eight years of high-profile clashes with former President Barack Obama, in part over Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway (2nd L) listens during a joint news conference with U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the East Room of the White House February 15, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump hosted Prime Minister Netanyahu for talks for the first time since Trump took office on January 20.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer waits for the beginning of a joint news conference with U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the East Room of the White House February 15, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump hosted Prime Minister Netanyahu for talks for the first time since Trump took office on January 20.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump, right, speaks with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. Netanyahu is trying to recalibrate ties with Israel's top ally after eight years of high-profile clashes with former President Barack Obama, in part over Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, waves while leaving the West Wing of the White House after meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. Netanyahu is trying to recalibrate ties with Israel's top ally after eight years of high-profile clashes with former President Barack Obama, in part over Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture Directort Lonnie Bunch(2ndR), talks with first Lady Melania Trump and Sara Netanyahu, wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as they tour the Museum along with Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton, left, on February 15, 2017, in Washington, DC.

(MOLLY RILEY/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. first lady Melania Trump and Sara Netanyahu stand together during a visit to the African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, U.S., February 15, 2017.

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

President Donald Trump addresses a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 15, 2017.

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enter the White House as first lady Melania Trump and Sara Netanyahu follow in Washington, U.S., March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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The Trump administration has been less critical than the administration of President Barack Obama of Israeli settlement policy. But in an interview published on Sunday in Israel Hayom, a pro-Netanyahu newspaper, Trump urged Israel to tread cautiously.

"The settlements are something that very much complicates and always have complicated making peace, so I think Israel has to be very careful with the settlements," Trump said.

Trump also voiced doubts about Palestinian and Israeli commitment to making peace.

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Asked when he would unveil a promised new peace plan, Trump said: "We are going to see what goes on. Right now, I would say the Palestinians are not looking to make peace, they are not looking to make peace. And I am not necessarily sure that Israel is looking to make peace."

U.S.-brokered peace talks collapsed in 2014, with the settlement issue one of the main factors behind their failure. (Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Grant McCool)

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