Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett said on Wednesday that Israel should move to establish sovereignty over nearly a third of the occupied West Bank following the announcement of US President Donald Trump's Middle East peace plan.
The remarks by the hawkish Bennett, a partner in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing governing coalition, fueled accusations by Palestinians that Trump's plan paves the way for Israel to formally annex large areas of the West Bank that it has occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War.
Confounding some predictions, Trump's plan did propose a "two-state" solution, which envisages Israel and a future Palestinian state living alongside each other, but with strict conditions that Palestinians have balked at.
He set in motion a four-year timeline for the creation of a Palestinian state, with Palestinians first having to agree to halt attacks by the Islamist militant group Hamas which controls the enclave of Gaza.
It also says they should set up governing institutions in order to establish a Palestinian state with its capital in Abu Dis, a Palestinian town bordering East Jerusalem.
But the plan also gave US recognition of Israel's West Bank settlements - deemed illegal under international law, Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, and a redrawn, demilitarized Palestinian state that would fully meet "the security requirements of the State of Israel".
And in his remarks Trump said that Jerusalem would be the undivided capital of Israel.
With Netanyahu still outside Israel after attending the plan's presentation in Washington, Bennett lost no time ahead of an Israeli election on March 2 in outlining his hawkish interpretation of what the White House had offered Israel.
"Last night history knocked on the door of our home and gave us a one-time opportunity to apply Israeli law on all settlements in Samaria, Judea, the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea," Bennett said, using the Hebrew names for areas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Bennett said Israel had effectively been given the green light to start applying its laws "on all the territory President Trump is willing." He said that accounts for about 30 percent of the West Bank.
Bennett said he had already given orders to form a special team within Israel's security establishment to "implement the application of Israeli law and sovereignty on all Jewish settlements" in the West Bank.
Bennett is vying with Netanyahu for support from right-wing voters ahead of the election. But it is unclear whether their caretaker administration even has a legal mandate to carry out such a move, with the Israeli political system in electoral deadlock following two inconclusive elections in 2019.
SLAP OF THE CENTURY
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called Trump's plan the "slap of the century" after it was announced while thousands of Palestinians protested in Gaza and the West Bank.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Trump's team had simply "copied and pasted" the blueprint that Netanyahu and Israeli settler leaders wanted to see implemented.
"It's about annexation, it's about apartheid," he said in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. "Moving to the de jure annexation of settlements is something that was given the green light yesterday."
Palestinian leaders say the Trump administration is strongly biased toward Israel.
Since taking power in 2016, Washington has broken from international consensus by recognizing disputed Jerusalem as Israel's capital, halted aid to the Palestinians, and said it no longer considers the settlements as a breach of international law.
Palestinians are dismissive of the plan for a capital in Abu Dis, which is in the West Bank just outside the Israeli municipal borders of the city.
It lies a mile east of Jerusalem's historic walled Old City - the revered heart of the city that is home to sites sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But it is cut off by an Israeli wall and checkpoints.
On Tuesday Nabil Abu Rudeineh, an Abbas spokesman, said the Palestinian Authority would appeal to the Arab League, non-aligned countries the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the United Nations Security Council "in order to confront this plan".
He told Reuters: "The Palestinian position is united. All the factions have participated in the meeting yesterday and all of them are supportive to the position of the president."