Cabinet never discussed West Bank annexation plan, Gantz says

Cabinet never discussed West Bank annexation plan, Gantz says

Briefing MKs, defense minister indicates that it is up to Netanyahu to advance approval of move, reiterates Jordan Valley and settlements blocs will remain under Israeli control

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to the media outside his home in Rosh Haayin, August 9, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to the media outside his home in Rosh Haayin, August 9, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

The Israeli cabinet and high-level security cabinet never discussed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank, Defense Minister Benny Gantz revealed Monday.

“I had discussions about it with the defense establishment, but according to the coalition agreement, which we remain committed to, it is not we who should bring it up for discussion in the [security] cabinet and the government. No such discussion has taken place so far,” he told lawmakers during a meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

According to the coalition agreement that Netanyahu’s Likud party signed with Gantz’s Blue and White list on April 20, the prime minister is allowed to bring the issue up for approval “to the government and/or the Knesset” by July 1.

“If the prime minister wants to present his proposal to the Knesset, he can also do so through an MK provided that the latter is from the Likud faction, so as to ensure that during the preliminary reading the legislation be adapted to the same wording as presented by the prime minister in the cabinet and government,” the agreement read.

Addressing the lawmakers on Monday, Gantz said that the US administration’s so-called Vision for Peace proposal, which forms the basis for Netanyahu’s declared intention to annex the Jordan Valley and all settlements across the West Bank, is an “excellent plan that corresponds to the requirements of reality as it is, and not as some would like to see it.”

The Jordan Valley must remain Israel’s eastern border, and the settlements blocs, including those surrounding Jerusalem, “will remain under our control,” the defense minister and alternate prime minister said.

“Under any [peace] plan, the State of Israel must remain a Jewish, democratic and secure state,” he declared.

The Trump peace plan has been rejected by the Palestinians, and most of the international community has strongly condemned talk of Israeli annexation.

On Sunday evening, Channel 12 reported that US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman had departed Jerusalem for Washington “for two weeks of marathon talks about annexation.”

But a US embassy official told The Times of Israel that Friedman is in the US “on personal leave.”

“We don’t comment on internal US government policy deliberations. We remain committed to supporting the president’s Vision for Peace as laid out in January,” the official added.

Last Wednesday, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi (Blue and White) said neither Jerusalem nor Washington are currently focused on annexation.

“Right now, it’s not on the agenda, because everyone is busy,” he told a group of ambassadors from Latin American countries hosted by the Foreign Ministry.

“But, as we stated, it’s a framework to solve the conflict. We prefer to do to in dialogue with our neighbors, we prefer to do to it without interfering with the existing past peace agreements [with Egypt and Jordan], and future ones. We are fully aware of the consequences of this vision and we would like to do it in a responsible way,” said the foreign minister.

Unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority continues to refuse to engage with the US administration on the peace plan it revealed in January, which proposes Israel apply sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and all West Bank settlements, Ashkenazi told the foreign ambassadors.

“I don’t understand how their refusal serves their interest, and we ask everyone who has leverage over the Palestinians to persuade them to come to the table. I hope that that will be the case.”

Last week, Netanyahu said his plan to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank land is still on the cards, but is being held up by the US administration.

“The issue of applying sovereignty is in Washington. It’s not off the table, the option still exists,” he told his Likud party’s faction meeting.

Netanyahu had declared his intention to move forward with partial annexation, under the auspices of the US peace plan, from July 1, but that date came and went without any movement on the matter, and, in recent weeks, the prime minister has been largely silent on the issue.

Later last Monday, a well-placed source told The Times of Israel that Avi Berkowitz, the US administration’s envoy to the Middle East, is continuing to work on the implementation of US President Donald Trump’s peace proposal, including conducting meetings with interlocutors preparing for possible Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank.

More discussions between Jerusalem and Washington are needed for annexation to take place, as are gestures toward the Palestinians, the source said, but the move could get underway in the near future. But after August ends, annexation becomes increasingly unlikely due to the approaching US elections in November, he added.

The controversial plan had all but disappeared from the public agenda since Berkowitz’s last visit to Jerusalem in late June. But the envoy has held ongoing meetings on the matter, preparing for various options, the source told The Times of Israel last Monday.

Senior officials in Washington have repeatedly said that it was up to Israel to decide if and when it wants to extend sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, but Netanyahu indicated that the ball was in Washington’s court.

The US team working on the Israeli-Palestinian file wants to make sure that any Israeli annexation would be combined with some kind of goodwill gesture toward the Palestinians, and Berkowitz has been working on a “package” to sweeten the pill of annexation for the Palestinians, the source said, without elaborating.

US President Donald Trump (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk with reporters before a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, January 27, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“More discussions are required to make sure all sides are coordinated on this package,” the source said. It was regrettable that the Palestinian leadership refuses to engage with the Trump administration, he added, but Washington will still insist that Ramallah not be left empty-handed, in case Israel gets the go-ahead for annexation.

Reports in recent months have indicated that the White House has cooled on the Israeli proposal, amid the raging coronavirus pandemic, race protests, upcoming national elections, and other considerations.

The White House has said repeatedly that it is up to Israel to decide on annexation, but has yet to give a definitive answer as to whether it is prepared to support and recognize the unilateral annexation now of part or all of the 30 percent of the West Bank allocated to Israel in its peace plan.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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