Gantz, Ashkenazi learned of Morocco talks from White House, not Netanyahu

Blue and White leaders say Trump administration kept them in the loop; PM reportedly spoke to defense minister hours before announcement of ties and made no mention of it

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White party, and MK Gabi Ashkenazi at an election campaign event in Kfar Saba, on Feb 12, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White party, and MK Gabi Ashkenazi at an election campaign event in Kfar Saba, on Feb 12, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once again kept his senior coalition partners from the Blue and White party in the dark about a brewing accord with an Arab nation, media reports and officials statements indicated Thursday, with the White House updating Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi ahead of the Morocco normalization announcement instead of the premier’s office.

A spokesman for Askenazi said in a statement that the Trump administration had updated the Blue and White ministers weeks ago as progress toward an agreement was being made. The two were then notified by the US on Wednesday when the deal was finalized, the spokesman said.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu, who spoke on the phone with Gantz Thursday hours before the new deal was announced, made no mention of the normalization agreement, Channel 12 reported.

Gantz and Ashkenazi learned about Israel’s agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain after the fact. They were informed ahead of time of October’s announcement that Sudan would also move to normalize ties, but were again blindsided by Netanyahu’s reported secret trip to Saudi Arabia last month, where the premier met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss Israel-Saudi normalization. The Blue and White ministers only learned of the trip after Netanyahu had already returned.

(right-to-left) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and Moroccan King Mohammed VI (Abir Sultan, Evan Vucci and Moroccan Royal Palace/AP)

“Organizing such a trip requires the involvement of dozens of people for security arrangements. But as usual they did not know,” Opposition leader Yair Lapid tweeted at the time. “They are not involved in any diplomatic issues.”

The UAE deal was accompanied by a US agreement to sell the Gulf nation advanced F-35 stealth fighters and other top-flight arms, a move initially opposed by Gantz, though he later acquiesced. The defense minister accused Netanyahu of keeping him and other top defense officials in the dark over that matter as well, while Netanyahu has insisted he never gave Israeli approval for the sale.

Relations between Blue and White and Netanyahu’s Likud appear to be at an all-time low, with Gantz’s party advancing legislation this week to dissolve the Knesset and spark the fourth election in less than two years. The centrist party’s main qualm is the premier’s refusal to immediately pass a 2020-2021 bi-annual budget — the budget being the lone visible loophole in their coalition deal that would prevent Gantz from replacing Netanyahu as prime minister in November of next year as agreed upon. The Likud leader claimed last week he could not uphold his end of the deal if Blue and White continued violating the “spirit” of their unity agreement.

Despite not being updated by Netanyahu, Ashkenazi issued a statement Thursday welcoming the normalization with Morocco. He thanked Trump for “promoting peace and stability in the Middle East and supporting Israel.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a vote at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

“This is another great day for Israeli diplomacy — a day of light — as befits the holiday of Hanukkah,” he added, referencing the Jewish holiday that began that evening.

The breakthrough announcement was delivered via a tweet from Trump earlier Thursday.

As part of the announcement, Trump said that the US would recognize Morocco’s claim over the disputed Western Sahara region.

As his time in office winds down, Trump said Israel and Morocco would restore diplomatic and other relations, including the immediate opening of liaison offices in Rabat and Tel Aviv and the eventual opening of embassies. US officials said it would also include joint overflight rights for airlines.

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