Foreign minister working behind scenes to derail annexation — report

Following report citing UN official, Gabi Ashkenazi says he’s committed to Trump peace plan, will only back move if coordinated with US and countries in the region

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi speaks at a joint press conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, June 10, 2020. (Foreign Ministry/courtesy)
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi speaks at a joint press conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, June 10, 2020. (Foreign Ministry/courtesy)

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi is working behind the scenes to prevent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current plan to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank, a senior United Nations official has told Israeli politicians, according to an Israeli report Tuesday.

According to Army Radio, the unnamed UN official also said he “can’t fathom a single logical reason for Israel to take a unilateral step.”

While Netanyahu is vigorously championing the move, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Ashkenazi say annexation moves should be implemented in coordination with Jordan and other regional stakeholders.

Under the coalition deal between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz and Ashkenazi’s Blue and White, Netanyahu can begin annexing settlements and the Jordan Valley from July 1 under the aegis of the US peace plan, which envisions Israel holding on to 30 percent of the West Bank and the creation of a Palestinian political entity in the other 70 percent.

A statement from Ashkenazi’s office in response to the report said the foreign minister was fully committed to advancing the Trump peace plan “out of a will to eventually bring about separation from the Palestinians.”

The statement said Ashkenazi would only support the move if it is “fully coordinated with the United States and countries in the region, while preserving existing and future peace agreements.”

Likud minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Army Radio that he hoped the report was not true, adding that the subject of annexation was the only part of the power-sharing unity deal that didn’t require approval by both Likud and Blue and White.

“I find it hard to believe that any government minister would act behind the prime minister’s back,” he said.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with Defense Minister Benny Gantz Benny Gantz during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on June 7, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/Pool via AP)

Last week, Channel 13 news reported that Netanyahu presented Gantz and Ashkenazi with four scenarios for annexing West Bank lands, ranging from a symbolic move to annexation of the full 30% earmarked under the plan.

As of last weekend, the Israel Defense Forces had not yet seen maps of the territories proposed for annexation, but reports Friday said Israeli security officials would be shown the maps this week.

Netanyahu’s vows to push ahead with unilateral annexation have 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.

Concerned about the collateral damage that could follow, Washington is reportedly considering backing the annexation of only of a handful of settlements close to Jerusalem.

US President Donald Trump’s administration initially indicated it would not oppose Netanyahu’s declared plans, providing Israel accepts its peace plan, which conditionally provides for a Palestinian state on the remaining 70% of the territory. However, US enthusiasm for such a move has appeared to cool amid vociferous opposition from American allies in the Middle East.

So far, the Palestinians have rejected the entire plan.

Officials in the Trump administration are set to hold a decisive meeting as early as Tuesday on whether to approve the annexation move.

“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 Monday evening.

US President Donald Trump (C) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alongside US Vice President Mike Pence, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (2nd R) and White House adviser Jared Kushner (R) in the Oval Office of the White House, on January 27, 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner and Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz are all expected to be at the Washington meeting. US President Donald Trump may also take part, Reuters said.

The official noted that Washington has not ruled out Netanyahu’s larger annexation vision, but is concerned that a large-scale, rapid, unilateral move by Israel could seal off any chance that the Palestinians may agree to discuss Trump’s peace plan, unveiled in January.

A central issue in the White House meeting is likely to be the internal disagreement in the Israeli coalition over annexation.

JTA contributed to this report.

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