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U.S. envoy hints at peace deal with Israeli security control in West Bank

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. ambassador to Israel said on Tuesday the Trump administration understands a need for Israel to have “overriding security control” in the occupied West Bank in any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

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The envoy, David Friedman, is part of a White House team spearheading a still-secret Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that Washington has said will be unveiled after Israel’s election on April 9.

Palestinians, who seek statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, have called any peace proposal by President Donald Trump a non-starter.

They see Trump as biased in Israel’s favor, noting his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and transfer of the U.S. embassy to the city from Tel Aviv last May.

Addressing a convention of the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC in Washington, Friedman gave no details of the U.S. blueprint. But he appeared to suggest it was in Israel’s best interests to engage now on the deal, while the United States has a president sympathetic to its security concerns.

“Can we leave this to an administration that may not understand the existential risk to Israel if Judea and Samaria are overcome by terrorists in the manner that befell the Gaza Strip after the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) withdrew from this territory?” Friedman said.

Friedman, who used the biblical terms for the West Bank, was referring to the 2005 pullout of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza, territory seized by Hamas Islamists two years later in a brief war with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s rival Fatah movement.

“Can we leave this to an administration that may not understand the need for Israel to maintain overriding security control of Judea and Samaria and a permanent defense position in the Jordan Valley?” he said.

Israel has long rejected any return to what it has described as indefensible boundaries that existed before the 1967 Middle East war. It has said it must maintain military control of the West Bank, which it captured in that conflict along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Friedman’s comments did not say what “overriding” Israeli security control in the West Bank would entail. But his reference to a permanent defense post in its eastern sector, bordering Jordan, seemed to suggest at least a partial troop presence.

The Palestinians demand a full Israeli pullout from the West Bank and a return to the pre-1967 borders.

Trump’s Middle East adviser and son-in law Jared Kushner is spearheading Washington’s peace efforts, but has not disclosed details. A trip by Kushner to the region in February to advance the plan appeared to have ended with little progress

Unlike his predecessors, Trump has not endorsed the goal of Palestinian statehood. On Monday, he signed a decree recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war and annexed in 1981 in a move not recognized internationally.

Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Frances Kerry