Gantz: I won’t back annexing areas with ‘many Palestinian residents’ — report

Defense minister also said to tell security officials he’s sure Netanyahu will not ‘endanger’ Jordan peace treaty or Israel’s relationship with US

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on June 7, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz at a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on June 7, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz reportedly said in a Thursday meeting that he will not support applying sovereignty to West Bank areas with “many Palestinian residents.”

In a meeting with defense officials, he said he would not back such a move in order to “avoid friction,” Channel 12 reported.

Gantz also said he was “sure that the prime minister will not endanger the peace agreement with Jordan and Israel’s strategic relationship with the US in an irresponsible move,” according to the report.

During the meeting with the defense officials, Gantz added that he intends to bring any planned move before “the professional ranks” to get their positions.

The Blue and White party leader also stressed the need to work with the Palestinians and present steps that will improve the lives of Palestinians as part of the process of applying sovereignty.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to begin unilaterally annexing up to 30 percent of the West Bank — the territory allocated to Israel in the Trump administration peace plan, covering all the settlements and the Jordan Valley — from July 1.

Netanyahu and Gantz have met several times this week to discuss annexation, including for talks attended by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. According to recent Hebrew media reports, the US administration wants Gantz to be on board with any annexation move.

Talks this week between Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White were said to have revealed significant disagreements between the parties on the size of the territory to be annexed, the schedule for implementing the move, and the order of the steps that should be taken.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a ceremony for the replacement of the Health Ministry director-general, in Jerusalem on June 18, 2020 (Health Ministry)

Three former senior military officers, meanwhile, have all reportedly turned down an offer from Gantz to lead an administrative headquarters overseeing Israel’s annexation process.

The three officers were put off because the position is so political and because some of them have ties to the security industry through private companies, the report said, apparently creating a conflict of interest, Channel 12 reported Wednesday night.

Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, a right-wing lawmaker allied with the Blue and White Party, said Thursday he would back annexation even if Gantz opposes it.

He also said he supports extending citizenship to Palestinians living in areas that Israel may annex. Netanyahu said last month that Palestinians living under Israeli rule in an annexed Jordan Valley wouldn’t receive Israeli citizenship.

Netanyahu on Wednesday presented Gantz with various scenarios for annexing West Bank lands, ranging from a merely symbolic move all the way to extending sovereignty over all areas slated for Israel under the Trump administration’s peace plan, according to a Channel 13 news report.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi (Blue and White) and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin (Likud) also took part in the meeting, the report said.

Quoting a senior official briefed on the meeting, the report said that Netanyahu and Levin showed Gantz and Ashkenazi maps detailing the areas Israel would annex under four possible scenarios.

FM Gabi Ashkenazi speaks at a joint press conference with German FM Heiko Maas, June 10, 2020 (MFA)

Those included annexing the roughly 30 percent of the West Bank US President Donald Trump’s peace proposal designates for Israel — covering the Jordan Valley and all 132 settlements — or only a small, symbolic chunk of it. The report did not provide further details on the different scenarios.

Gantz and Ashkenazi stressed during the meeting that they oppose annexing lands where large numbers of Palestinians live, and that any Palestinians in the annexed areas should be offered citizenship, according to various Hebrew media reports. They reiterated that annexation should not be unilateral but part of a broader diplomatic move that would include benefits for the Palestinians, the Channel 13 report said.

The official said the meeting ended without any significant progress and that further talks would be held in the coming days.

Under the coalition deal between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White, Netanyahu can begin annexing settlements and the Jordan Valley from July 1. The Trump administration has indicated it will not oppose Netanyahu’s declared plans to do so, providing Israel accepts its peace plan, which conditionally provides for a Palestinian state on the remaining 70% of the territory.

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.

The issue has threatened to upend years of diplomatic work forging quiet ties between Israel and Gulf states.

Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the United Arab Emirates’ powerful crown prince and de facto ruler, said Wednesday he discussed the matter with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

“I assured King Abdullah in our phone conversation of UAE’s full solidarity with Jordan & our categorical rejection of accepting Israel’s illegal annexation of Palestinian lands. We are working with our Arab brethren & the international community against this illegal move,” the crown prince wrote on Twitter.

His comments came after Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s influential ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, warned last week in a Hebrew op-ed published in an Israeli paper that Abu Dhabi would freeze normalization if annexation moves ahead.

Other Gulf states have remained mostly quiet about annexation, though an Israeli diplomatic official told Army Radio Monday that ties with these countries would be set back by annexation moves.

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