European Union said to warn Gantz not to agree to West Bank annexation
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European Union said to warn Gantz not to agree to West Bank annexation

EU officials reportedly say move by potential unity government would elicit ‘strong response’; Gantz adviser responds that he will try to influence matter

Benny Gantz, Blue and White leader, attends a party meeting in Tel Aviv, December 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Benny Gantz, Blue and White leader, attends a party meeting in Tel Aviv, December 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The European Union has been warning Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz not to agree to annexation of parts of the West Bank in coalition negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, a report said Saturday night.

Annexation of the Jordan Valley and of Jewish settlements in the West Bank was a core election promise by Netanyahu, and Gantz has given mixed messages on such a move, which is generally opposed internationally but could be approved by Washington as part of US President Donald Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

Gantz expressed support for annexing the Jordan Valley, but conditioned the measure on it being coordinated with the international community — a prospect that appears far-fetched as the US is the only country that has not rejected annexation out of hand.

Gantz is believed to have withdrawn his previous demand for a right of veto on annexing West Bank settlements under the US peace plan, essentially clearing the way for it to take place if it is approved by Washington.

EU officials spoke over the past few weeks with Gantz’s foreign affairs adviser, Melody Sucharewicz, and told her that the union strongly opposes any unilateral move to extend Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, Channel 13 reported Saturday, citing unnamed European diplomats.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox girls in the central West Bank settlement of Modiin Illit cross the street on their way to school, October 19 2009. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The officials were said to caution that any such move by a potential unity government would damage Israel’s relations with the EU and elicit a strong response.

The diplomats were cited as saying Sucharewicz had responded that Gantz had been forced to compromise on his views on annexation, since he had chosen to insist on other things in the coalition negotiations.

She also told the diplomats that Gantz would try to influence the decision from within the government if it is eventually formed.

Israel took control of the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, in a move never recognized by the international community. The Palestinians are claiming the territory as part of their future state.

Gantz told associates over the weekend that his party and Likud are “on the brink of a deal” to form a government, after weeks of political wrangling, Channel 12 reported Saturday.

Gantz cited “a breakthrough” in talks between the sides, according to the report, and said he saw no reason in principle why the parties could not sign a coalition deal in the next day or so.

President Reuven Rivlin, center, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A main point of contention between the sides in recent days was believed to be Likud’s desire to make changes to judicial appointment procedures to give it greater control over the process.

Another key issue was reportedly Netanyahu’s concern that the High Court may rule that he cannot be prime minister due to the criminal charges against him, a development that could leave Gantz as premier for the whole term of their coalition. Netanyahu has therefore reportedly been trying to engineer some kind of legislative guarantee that Gantz would not take over as prime minister in the event of such a court ruling.

Gantz on Friday afternoon said he did not know if he would succeed in efforts to form a unity government with Netanyahu, but if he failed, he would head into fresh elections with his head held high.

Gantz’s negotiations with Netanyahu caused the centrist Blue and White party to split from former allies Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon.

Gantz on Thursday issued a tacit threat to resume legislative action against Netanyahu if a deal isn’t sealed soon. A Blue and White statement said Gantz, who is Knesset speaker, had “informed faction members that he intends to have the Knesset functioning fully from next week, as is appropriate and as he vowed when he was elected Knesset speaker.”

Yair Lapid (left) and Benny Gantz speak to supporters in Tel Aviv, on February 20, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

This was understood as a threat — and was reportedly confirmed as such by Blue and White sources — that if a coalition deal were not approved by Monday, Gantz could advance legislation to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government.

However, Lapid and Ya’alon, who support legislation barring an indicted politician from forming a government — effectively disqualifying Netanyahu — have said they wouldn’t support such a move if it is part of a ploy by Gantz to advance negotiations for a unity government.

President Reuven Rivlin informed Gantz on Thursday morning that his mandate to form a government had ended, after he failed to present a coalition to the Knesset by Wednesday’s midnight deadline.

Rivlin did not hand the mandate to Netanyahu, but rather triggered the start of the 21-day period during which any 61 Knesset members may select any candidate to form a government. The move was widely seen as intended to force Netanyahu and Gantz to stop dithering and seal a unity deal quickly amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Israel has been led by a caretaker government since December 2018, when the 20th Knesset dissolved. Since then, three consecutive elections have so far failed to yield a new government, creating an unprecedented political crisis.

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