Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought unsuccessfully Sunday to obtain support from Defense Minister Benny Gantz for various proposals to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank next month, with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman serving as the moderator between them, a TV report said.
Friedman, Netanyahu, Likud Knesset speaker Yariv Levin, Blue and White’s leader Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi met for several hours of talks Sunday afternoon focused on the prime minister’s repeated promise to begin annexing up to 30 percent of the West Bank — covering all 132 settlements and the Jordan Valley area — from July 1, subject to US backing.
The talks made no definitive progress, and are to resume on Monday, Channel 13 news reported. The Netanyahu-Gantz coalition deal allows the prime minister to advance moves to annex West Bank territory allocated to Israel under the Trump administration’s peace proposal from July 1, whether Gantz backs such moves or not. But the US is reportedly anxious that Israel not move ahead with unilateral annexation unless both key components of the unity government — Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White — are on board.
While Gantz and Ashkenazi, both of Blue and White, both publicly back US President Donald Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan, unveiled in late January, they have not endorsed Netanyahu’s planned unilateral annexation of territory allocated to Israel under the proposal.
Both Blue and White leaders have said the Trump plan should be implemented in coordination with other affected parties, including Jordan and, presumably, the Palestinians. However, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected the entire US initiative, and Jordan has warned that it will review ties with Israel if Netanyahu proceeds with unilateral annexation. The UAE is warning publicly against such a move, as are the EU and the Saudis. Still, Gantz was last week quoted as telling settler leaders, “What’s being offered to you, take. As for the rest, you can deal with it later.”
At Sunday’s talks, Netanyahu and Levin proposed ideas to Gantz and Ashkenazi covering what the TV report said was a whole range of possibilities — including annexing all the settlements and the Jordan Valley; or just the settlements; or just the major settlement blocs — an apparent reference to the Etzion, Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel areas.
Netanyahu presented no maps at the meeting. And while he still seeks “the maximal annexation,” Gantz and Ashkenazi have “no appetite for dramatic moves” and even less so if the Americans are cooling, the TV report said, citing a senior official.
It speculated that Netanyahu might end up with less annexed territory than he wants, or even no annexation at all.
Netanyahu has reportedly not involved the IDF in his pre-annexation planning, and has not even shown maps to Gantz, the defense minister.
The Trump proposal states that its goal is to serve as the basis for a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian accord, but with the PA having preemptively rejected the plan, Netanyahu has been seeking since it was unveiled to unilaterally extend Israeli sovereignty to the areas allocated to Israel. Friedman initially indicated Israel could do so, but Jared Kushner, the US president’s adviser and son-in-law, intervened to delay such action.
The work of a US-Israel mapping committee has been delayed by the COVID-19 crisis, and well-placed sources told The Times of Israel earlier this month that Washington was “highly unlikely” to back any unilateral annexation by Netanyahu’s July 1 target date, in part because the mapping process, a precondition for the move, is weeks if not months away from completion.
Policymakers and diplomats in Washington are increasingly warning that the Israeli government’s annexation plans would spark a crisis and damage the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
With Netanyahu’s July 1 start date fast approaching, multiple stakeholders in the conflict pleaded with the Trump administration and members of the US Congress last week to oppose Netanyahu’s planned move.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) told members of Congress last week that it has no objection to them criticizing Netanyahu’s annexation plans, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The pro-Israel lobby usually works assiduously to discourage any criticism of Israel.
Under the coalition deal between Netanyahu and Gantz, the government can pursue annexation backed by the US starting July 1. The Trump administration has indicated it will not oppose Israeli moves to annex lands that would become part of the country under its peace plan, which conditionally envisions a Palestinian state on the remaining some 70 percent of the West Bank, pockmarked with Israeli settlement panhandles and enclaves.
Netanyahu’s declared plan has been met with vociferous opposition in Europe, the Arab world and domestically, with warnings that it could add instability in the region, lead to deepening international isolation of Israel, and damage Israel’s democratic character.
Netanyahu and many on the Israeli right have defended the annexation moves as long-sought recognition of a reality on the ground after decades of settlement building and military rule of the West Bank, with peace efforts long moribund due to Palestinian intransigence.
Israel’s Washington envoy Ron Dermer has been pushing the Trump administration to give Israel the green light to carry out its plan, fearing that his rival Joe Biden might block it if he is elected in November, according to a Channel 13 report in May.
Eric Cortellessa contributed to this report.