Gantz heads to Washington for lightning peace plan talks with Trump

Blue and White leader says he’ll ‘exchange views’ with US president but will keep content of conversation behind closed doors

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 took off for Washington early Sunday morning for a high-stakes meeting with US President Donald Trump to discuss a soon-to-be-released Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

Gantz surprised pundits and others Saturday night when he announced that he would go to Washington, albeit separate from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after the two were invited for a White House meeting last week.

Gantz is scheduled to meet Trump on Monday, while Netanyahu, who is slated to leave for Washington later Sunday, will meet with the US leader on the peace proposal on Tuesday.

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.

US President Donald Trump, right, and visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk along the Colonnade of the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Asked at Ben Gurion Airport whether he will endorse the plan or ask Trump to push off its release until after elections, Gantz demurred.

“I’ll hear from him about the plan and exchange views, but what is done behind closed doors will stay behind closed doors,” he told the Kan public broadcaster.

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

The plan, which Trump said he would release before his meeting Tuesday, 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 allowing Israel to annex all West Bank settlements and backing 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.

A picture taken on November 19, 2019 shows a new housing construction site in the Israeli settlement of Elazar, near the Palestinian city of Bethlehem south of Jerusalem, in the West Bank. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Gantz is expected to be back in the country by Monday afternoon and 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.”

Gantz originally balked at the prospect of meeting Trump alongside Netanyahu, according to reports, fearing he would come off as a bit player given the other leaders’ close relationship.

But appearing on live TV Saturday, Gantz said he would meet Trump Monday “as the head of the biggest party in Israel.”

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.

He said Trump’s proposed peace plan would come to constitute a “meaningful milestone,” setting out the path for the conflicting sides in the Middle East “to march toward a regional, historic deal.”

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)

Gantz is Netanyahu’s main political rival and elections last April and September ended in deadlock between the rival blocs they head; further elections are to be held on March 2.

The ongoing political stalemate has delayed the release of the plan, and the administration’s plans to release it now, six weeks before elections, have been met by accusations that it constitutes political meddling.

Gantz earlier this month urged the administration to hold off on releasing the plan until after elections, as reports first surfaced that the White House was mulling rolling it out beforehand.

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