JERUSALEM - The White House said Thursday it has invited Israel's prime minister and his main political rival to Washington next week to discuss the "prospect of peace" with the Palestinians, who have already rejected the administration's long-awaited peace plan.
Vice President Mike Pence announced the invitation at a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem after addressing an international forum on the Holocaust. He said that at Netanyahu's request an invitation has also been issued to Benny Gantz, a former army chief and Netanyahu's main rival in March 2 elections.
The announcement indicated that the White House may be ready to release its peace plan after several delays. The plan is expected to strongly favor Israel, and is unlikely to garner any international support if it is seen as undermining the prospect of a two-state solution.
President Donald Trump later dampened the speculation, tweeting that he looks forward to welcoming Netanyahu and Gantz to the White House, but that "reports about details and timing of our closely-held peace plan are purely speculative."
Pence said they would "discuss regional issues as well as the prospect of peace here in the Holy Land."
Netanyahu said he "gladly" accepted the invitation.
"We have had no better friend than President Trump," he said. "With this invitation, I think that the president is seeking to give Israel the peace and security that it deserves."
Neither Pence nor Netanyahu mentioned the Palestinians, and no Palestinians are expected to attend the talks at the White House.
The Palestinians rejected Trump's peace efforts after he recognized disputed Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the U.S. Embassy there in May 2018. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in the 1967 war and annexed, to be their capital.
"If this deal is announced with these rejected formulas, the leadership will announce a series of measures in which we safeguard our legitimate rights, and we will demand Israel assume its full responsibilities as an occupying power," said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
He appeared to be referring to oft-repeated threats to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, which has limited autonomy in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. That would force Israel to resume responsibility for providing basic services to millions of Palestinians.
"We warn Israel and the U.S. administration from crossing the red lines," Abu Rdeneh said.
Israel's Channel 12 TV, citing Israeli officials, said the plan is expected to be extremely favorable toward Israel and offer it control over large parts of the occupied West Bank. The Palestinians seek the entire territory, which was also captured by Israel in 1967, as the heartland of a future independent state. Most of the international community supports the Palestinian position.
Netanyahu has said he plans to annex the Jordan Valley as well as Jewish settlements across the West Bank, which would all but extinguish any possibility of creating a viable Palestinian state.
Netanyahu has tried to make that the cornerstone of his campaign for re-election following unprecedented back-to-back elections last year that left him in a virtual tie with Gantz, with neither able to cobble together a ruling coalition.
The deadlock was deepened by Netanyahu's indictment last year on serious charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust stemming from three long-running corruption investigations. Netanyahu has asked Israel's parliament to grant him immunity.
Next week's meeting could provide an awkward scene. Gantz has made Netanyahu's indictment the focus of his campaign to oust the prime minister. And his Blue and White party is leading an effort in parliament to block Netanyahu's immunity request before the election. At the same time, they will be joined by an impeached president who is being tried in the Senate.
The U.S. was believed to be holding back on releasing the peace plan until Israel had a permanent government. Those calculations may have changed as the deadlock in Israeli politics looks to be further prolonged.
Trump may also be looking for a boost from evangelical and pro-Israel supporters as the Senate weighs whether to remove him from office after he was impeached last month, and as he gears up for a re-election battle this year.
Pence was among dozens of world leaders in Jerusalem on Thursday for the World Holocaust Forum. Many of the participants, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron, also paid visits to the Palestinians in the West Bank.
In the West Bank, a Palestinian official said Abbas asked the visiting French and Russian presidents to support the Palestinian position when the plan is published.
"He asked them to refuse and act against any Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing closed meetings.
While the plan is expected to be friendly to Israel, it could still face opposition from Netanyahu's hard-line partners.
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the ultranationalist Yamina party, called Trump a "true friend" of Israel and said the country likely stands before a "historic opportunity." But he said his party would not allow the transfer of any land to Palestinian control or for a Palestinian state to be established.