Says he'll then come home to try to block PM's immunity bid

Gantz accepts White House invite for separate meeting with Trump on peace deal

Blue and White leader thanks president for personal invite, calls him ‘true friend,’ says framework will cause internal divisions; PM: Trip is ‘opportunity that cannot be missed’

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz addressing press in Ramat Gan, on January 25, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)
Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz addressing press in Ramat Gan, on January 25, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz on Saturday said he had accepted a personal invitation from US President Donald Trump to meet with him privately in Washington on Monday on the administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan.

Gantz had been invited to Washington alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the peace plan, dubbed the “deal of the century,” which Trump has said he will likely release in the next few days. The two rival Israeli leaders were to have met Trump on Tuesday.

But Gantz — concerned he would be a minor player in such a meeting, but not wanting to say no to the president — said Saturday that he would instead meet with Trump separately on Monday “as the leader of the largest party in Israel.” Gantz is Netanyahu’s main political rival. Elections last April and September ended in deadlock between the rival blocs they head; further elections are to be held on March 2.

The meeting, set to be Gantz’s first with the US president, will be closed to the press, Blue and White said on Saturday.

Gantz, who will leave Israel Sunday morning and be back in the country by Monday afternoon, will be joined on his short trip by Amir Eshel, former commander of the Israeli Air Force. According to Blue and White, Eshel “has been serving over recent months in an advisory capacity to Mr. Gantz on the American peace plan and as a liaison to the American government on his behalf.”

Netanyahu’s office, in a statement issued immediately after Gantz announced his move, said the prime minister would also meet privately with Trump on Monday, in addition to the planned Tuesday meeting.

Appearing on live TV, Gantz said he has answered an invitation from Trump to meet with him privately and thanked him for the invitation.

“In coordination with the US administration, I accepted the personal, separate, respectful invitation from President Trump, and will meet with him personally on Monday, as the head of the biggest party in Israel. And I thank him for this important invitation.”

At the end of that White House meeting, he said, he would “return to Israel in order to lead, from up close, the discussions on removing Benjamin Netanyahu’s immunity.” Gantz was referring to the process, which is set to start in the Knesset on Tuesday, of weighing Netanyahu’s request for parliamentary protection from prosecution in the three graft cases for which he has been charged.

Gantz called Trump “a true friend to Israel, to Israelis, and to American Jews” and said that under his leadership “the alliance between Israel and the United States has grown stronger, deeper, and more significant than ever.”

He said Trump’s proposed peace plan would come to constitute a “significant milestone,” setting out the path for the conflicting sides in the Middle East “to march toward a regional, historic deal.” The US framework, he said, “is likely to cause major and painful internal disagreements” within Israel. “I pledge to minimize those disagreements, but to work to make the framework a basis for progress toward an agreed deal with the Palestinians and regional states, while maintaining and deepening the strategic partnerships with Jordan, Egypt and other states in the region.”

Gantz added that in recent months, he had held several meetings and discussions on the US peace plan with the US president’s “advisers, White House officials, and my friend, Ambassador David Friedman.”

From left to right: Blue and White Party MK Yair Lapid, party leader Benny Gantz, Special Adviser to the US President Jared Kushner, and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman during a meeting at the US Embassy in Jerusalem, October 28, 2019. (Jeries Mansour, US Embassy Jerusalem)

“I value and appreciate their commitment to the State of Israel and its prosperity, as well as their willingness to share, to listen to what was said in these talks regarding Israel’s security interests, and its regional and international status. The content of our conversations, just like the details of the plan, will remain secret for now,” said the Blue and White leader.

In order to move effectively ahead on such a process, which he predicted would be divisive within Israel, Gantz said Israel needed to be led “by a prime minister who has the public legitimacy to implement it.” Netanyahu, since he is facing criminal charges, said Gantz, lacked such legitimacy. Gantz predicted that he would win March 2’s elections, and then lead the efforts for diplomatic progress.

Israel is facing “irregular times,’ said Gantz, ahead of a third round of “unnecessary, expensive” elections that will have to yield clear results.

“We must remember that, alongside issues of policy and security, we are in the midst of a struggle for the image of the country with historical implications,” he said Saturday.

“Will it be a country with a leader who uses democracy to elevate and give special status to racist and extremist forces for his own personal immunity? Will it be a country where every one of you is bound to uphold the law while its ministers and prime ministers are immune and above the law?” asked Gantz in reference to Netanyahu.

“For the sake of supporting immunity, will our lives be managed from now on with Itamar Ben Gvir as minister of justice, Bezalel Smotrich as minister of interior and Rafi Peretz as minister of education?” he went on, referring to the head of the far-right, Kahanist-inspired Otzma Yehudit, the National Union chairman, and the Jewish Home head, respectively.

“Israel cannot continue to sink and bow its head to these intentions,” said Gantz.

Prior to Gantz’s announcement, Netanyahu released a short video in Hebrew in which he called the Trump plan a “historic moment” and an “opportunity that should not be missed.

US President Donald Trump (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embrace prior to signing a Proclamation on the Golan Heights in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House, March 25, 2019. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

“Today in the White House, we have the greatest friend Israel has had, and so we have the greatest opportunity,” Netanyahu said.

“For three years, I have been talking to President Trump and his team about our most vital security needs which must be included in any political settlement. I have found a listening ear in the White House for these needs,” he said.

The prime minister said he was headed to Washington “with a sense of great mission, of great responsibility and [amid] a great opportunity that will not repeat itself to ensure Israel’s future.”

Reports had swirled prior to Gantz’s announcement Saturday that the opposition party leader would opt out of the trip to Washington altogether, fearing it to be a “trap.” A Channel 12 report on Saturday citing sources close to Gantz said that he did not know what role he would have in the “performance” in Washington and that it wasn’t clear what his standing would be.

The report said Gantz was also unsure about how Trump would treat him in relation to Netanyahu, who has a long and friendly history with the US leader.

“In Blue and White, they fear it will be more political than diplomatic, and that Netanyahu is bringing Gantz to Washington, not to praise him, but to embarrass him, or diminish him,” the report said. Blue and White was also reluctant to publicly cooperate with rival Netanyahu, the TV report added, as the party’s main campaign focus has been on the need to remove the prime minister from office.

Gantz and Netanyahu were invited to the White House next Tuesday, the day the Knesset is set to vote on establishing the committee that will weigh the premier’s request to be protected from corruption charges in three criminal cases. Netanyahu is set to fly out on Sunday.

Blue and White Party leaders told Channel 12 Friday that they could not “on the one hand work to remove Netanyahu’s immunity [from prosecution] and his legitimacy, but at the same time participate in this together with him, giving him the status of a leader heading these major diplomatic moves.”

Earlier Saturday, Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman said the timing of Trump’s imminent release of his Israeli-Palestinian plan was “very suspicious” — implying it was being unveiled now to help boost Netanyahu’s chances in the March 2 election

Issuing the long-awaited plan so close to the election, said Liberman, meant that there would no possibility to discuss it substantively before the vote.

“To unveil such a plan five weeks before an election is very suspicious,” he said. “The very timing of it will prevent any serious, in-depth discussion of the proposal.” And in a peace plan, he added, “every word and every line counts.”

Liberman also accused Netanyahu of “running away” to the US by traveling to Washington this coming week, at the president’s invitation, to discuss the peace initiative.

Liberman claimed the premier was attempting to avoid his promise to annex the Jordan Valley to Israel, a move the Yisrael Beytenu party leader asserted could be swiftly approved when the Knesset plenum convenes Tuesday.

Netanyahu, he said, was “running away to the US to avoid his promise to extend sovereignty over the Jordan Valley. He’s running away from his obligations. Instead of driving 2.5 kilometers to the Knesset, he prefers to fly 9,500 kilometers to Washington.”

On Thursday, US Vice President Mike Pence confirmed that Netanyahu would visit the White House next week and said that Gantz was also invited, at Netanyahu’s urging.

Trump on Thursday said that he would likely release the plan before his meeting with Netanyahu and Gantz.

“It’s a great plan. It’s a plan that really would work,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One en route to a Republican Party meeting in Florida Thursday.

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.

Trump said his administration has talked briefly to the Palestinians, who reject the administration’s peace plan before its release.

According to Channel 12, the peace plan is the most generous US proposal ever for Israel, likely providing for Israeli sovereignty over all West Bank settlements and sovereignty throughout Jerusalem. According to that TV report, which was unsourced, the plan also offers potential eventual recognition of Palestinian statehood, provided the Palestinians demilitarize Gaza and accept Israel as a Jewish state — conditions the Palestinians would presumably reject.

Proceedings at home

Blue and White sources have also said that at this point the party had no intention to push off the immunity proceedings.

Netanyahu’s Likud party, on the other hand, was seeking to delay the vote on forming the committee to deliberate his immunity request, citing the Trump administration’s intention to unveil its peace plan, according to Hebrew media reports.

Likud ministers were considering asking Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to delay convening the plenum that day, the Kan public broadcaster said.

Netanyahu has sought to prevent the forming of a House Committee to weigh his immunity request prior to the March 2 election, as under the makeup of the current Knesset it is all but assured of rejecting it.

Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn, head of the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee, on Tuesday penciled in January 30 at 2:30 p.m. as the start of Netanyahu’s hearings, which are expected to take a week and include six sessions.

The start, however, depends on Tuesday’s scheduled plenum vote to form the House Committee.

Once formed, the House Committee could conceivably debate and potentially vote on Netanyahu’s immunity request in the coming weeks, ahead of election day. Even if it fails to reach a verdict by then, its meetings are likely to keep Netanyahu’s criminal proceedings front and center in the election campaign.

The prime minister and his supporters have argued that the committee should not be formed because the Israeli government is in transition, and also because there is insufficient time before the elections for it to properly weigh the immunity request.

Netanyahu announced at the start of January that he would ask the Knesset for parliamentary immunity, as he faced a legal deadline to do so, following Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision to charge him in three corruption cases. Mandelblit cannot officially indict Netanyahu until the Knesset votes on his request.

Netanyahu has been charged with fraud and breach of trust in three cases, and bribery in one of them. He denies any wrongdoing, and claims, without evidence, that the charges are part of an attempted “political coup” against him involving the opposition, media, police and state prosecution.

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