After Gantz says annexation can wait, Netanyahu snipes: ‘It’s not up to him’

Defense minister tells US officials coronavirus should take precedence over West Bank moves, but PM insists he is ‘not a factor’ in the debate

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said his coalition partners in the Blue and White party were “not a factor” in whether annexation of West Bank lands would go ahead as planned.

The prime minister was responding to Blue and White chief Benny Gantz, the defense minister, who said fighting the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout should take precedence over any political decisions regarding the West Bank.

“We are in talks with the US team here in Israel,” Netanyahu said at a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset. “We are doing it discreetly. The matter is not up to Blue and White, they are not a factor either way.”

As part of the unity coalition deal with Likud, Gantz also serves in the post of alternate prime minister. Though he is seen as reluctant to move forward with unilateral annexation, he has agreed to allow Netanyahu to advance such a plan after July 1 if he can secure a Knesset majority.

Earlier Monday, Gantz told top US diplomats involved in discussions with Israel about annexation that the July 1 start date for the controversial step should be pushed back, citing the coronavirus crisis.

“July 1 is not a sacred date,” Gantz told US Mideast envoy Avi Berkowitz, according to a source close to the defense minister. “Dealing with the coronavirus and its socioeconomic and health consequences is the more pressing issue that needs to be attended to right now.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends a cabinet meeting of the new government at Chagall State Hall in the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 24, 2020. (Abir Sultan/ Pool/ AFP)

In public comments later in the day, Gantz said at a Blue and White faction meeting that “those things that are not related to the fight against coronavirus will wait until the virus is behind us.” His office later clarified that he was referring specifically to the annexation plan.

Gantz said the fight against the virus would be long, and “this is exactly why Blue and White formed this government with Likud and prevented a fourth election.”

Tensions between Netanyahu and Gantz were on display Sunday at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting, in an exchange caught on a hot mic about whether Gantz would be able to speak in front of reporters, as he had requested..

File: Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz, Special Assistant to the President Alexa Henning, Senior Advisor to President Donald Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner and White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley walk out of the White House, May 8, 2020. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, via JTA)

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, Gantz’s former political partner turned bitter critic, on Monday mocked Gantz for Netanyahu’s treatment of him, saying the prime minister “humiliate[d] his alternate shadow in front of the cameras.”

He added: “This government isn’t functioning, and non-functioning governments fall pretty fast. It’s very reminiscent of the government I sat in [in 2013-2015], except that Netanyahu didn’t demean me, simply because he couldn’t.”

In a tweet, Blue and White responded: “He didn’t have time to [demean you], he fired you before [he had a chance].”

In his meeting earlier in the day with US envoy Berkowitz, Gantz also spoke with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and hailed US President Donald Trump’s peace plan as “a historic step that constitutes the best framework to promote the Middle East peace process.”

“It should be advanced with our strategic partners in the region and with the Palestinians, to arrive at an outline that benefits all sides in a responsible, proportional and reciprocal manner,” he said, according to the source close to him.

Berkowitz’s trip to Israel comes after the Trump administration held talks for three days last week on whether to back an Israeli annexation, with a White House official saying no final decision was made.

Gantz said Friday he was willing to immediately meet with the Palestinians for peace talks.

US ambassador to Israel David Friedman during a visit in the Jewish settlement of Efrat, in Gush Etzion, February 20, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

In a Facebook post, Gantz lamented the lack of negotiations with the Palestinians, saying he had been in touch with the United States, European countries and other nations on how to kickstart negotiations on the basis of Trump’s peace proposal. The plan, which the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority has rejected out of hand, designates some 30 percent of the West Bank for Israel and the rest for a prospective Palestinian state.

Gantz reiterated his conditions for extending sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, pledging Israel would not annex areas with large numbers of Palestinians and would grant equal rights to those living in annexed areas. Netanyahu has said Palestinians in these areas would not get Israeli citizenship.

The Times of Israel reported earlier this month that the White House was “highly unlikely” to green-light Israeli annexation by July 1, that more work was needed on the mapping of the territories, and that Berkowitz and Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner Kushner would likely first come to Jerusalem to discuss outstanding issues.

A Channel 13 news report earlier this month said that Friedman, who had flown back to the US for the meetings before returning to Israel, strongly backs Netanyahu’s declared intention to go ahead with the move starting July 1, but Kushner was said to be more ambivalent.

Concerned about the collateral damage that could follow from allowing Israel to move ahead with its plan, Washington is reportedly considering backing the annexation of only a handful of settlements close to Jerusalem.

“Ultimately, as the team approaches this thought of annexation, the main thing going through our heads is, ‘Does this in fact help advance the cause of peace?’ And therefore that is what will help drive a lot of the discussion,” a senior Trump administration official told Reuters in a report last week.

The prospect of unilateral annexation has been condemned internationally, with European and Arab states, as well as senior members of the US Democratic Party, warning the Israeli government against doing so.

Jacob Magid, Agencies, contributed to this report.

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