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Netanyahu, his rival to meet Trump on Mideast peace next week -Pence

JERUSALEM/WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his election rival Benny Gantz to Washington next week to discuss the White House Middle East peace plan, Vice President Mike Pence said on Thursday.

U.S. officials most likely will share some of the details of Trump’s long-delayed Middle East peace proposal, a document that addresses the thorny political issues between Israel and the Palestinians, a source familiar with the situation said.

The contents of the political part of the peace initiative have been closely guarded. Only the economic proposals have been unveiled.

“President Trump asked me to extend an invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu to come to the White House next week to discuss regional issues as well as the prospect of peace here in the Holy Land,” Pence said after meeting Netanyahu at the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.

There was no mention of the Palestinians, and Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said: “We warn Israel and the U.S. administration not to cross any red lines.”

Netanyahu said he had accepted the U.S. invitation. His office said he would fly to the United States on Sunday.

The veteran right-wing Israeli leader faces political and legal troubles at home – he is heading for his third election in less than a year, and he was indicted on criminal charges in November. He denies any wrongdoing.

Israeli political analysts viewed Trump’s invitation as a boost to his right-wing ally.

Netanyahu’s principal domestic political rival Gantz, a centrist former general, this week lifted his objection to having the peace plan be published before Israel’s March election. He had previously objected to it as interference in the vote.

LONG-DELAYED PLAN

The launch of Trump’s plan to end the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been delayed numerous times over the last two years.

A source familiar with the peace team’s thinking said bringing both Netanyahu and Gantz in on the details is aimed at focusing the plan on Israel and “taking this out of the political realm.”

Trump is facing his own political clock, preoccupied with his bid for re-election next November, and could ill afford to wait more months for Israel to decide who its next prime minister will be, the source said.

“If we waited we could be in the same position four months from now and never put out the plan,” the source said.

The political proposal is the product of three years of work by Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner, his deputy Avi Berkowitz and former envoy Jason Greenblatt. Kushner proposed a $50 billion economic plan for the Middle East last July at a conference in Bahrain.

Kushner and Berkowitz had been scheduled to visit Israel and Saudi Arabia after attending the World Economic Conference in Davos, Switzerland, this week, but opted instead to discuss the Middle East with Trump on Air Force One on the president’s return to Washington on Wednesday, the source said.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014 and Palestinians have called Trump’s proposal dead in the water, even before its publication, citing what they see as his pro-Israel policies.

The Trump administration has reversed decades of U.S. policy on the conflict, refraining from endorsing the two-state solution – the longtime international formula which envisages a Palestinian state co-existing with Israel.

It has also recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there. More recently, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in November that the United States no longer viewed Israel’s settlements on West Bank land as “inconsistent with international law.”

Palestinians and most of the international community view the settlements as illegal under international law. Israel disputes this, citing historical, biblical and political ties to the land, as well as security needs.

Netanyahu announced during an election campaign last September that he intends to annex the Jordan Valley, a large swathe of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Israel captured the West Bank in a 1967 war and Palestinians, who signed interim peace deals with Israel in the 1990s, seek to make the area part of a future state.

Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, has publicly refused to engage politically with the Trump administration.

They fear the plan will dash their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Trump, who will seek a second term in a Nov. 3 election, faces his own problems at home with Democrats seeking to oust the Republican president on impeachment charges of abusing power and obstructing Congress. (Reporting by Maayan Lubell; Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Ali Sawafta in Bethlehem, and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Howard Goller)