Trump envoy Avi Berkowitz arrives for annexation talks

Gantz: I’ll go to Ramallah tomorrow if Palestinians open to peace talks

Defense chief calls for negotiations on basis of Trump plan, says he’ll advance ‘reciprocal moves’ if Israel annexes parts of West Bank, actions will be ‘responsible and focused’

Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends a government cabinet meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Jerusalem, Israel, Sunday, June 21, 2020. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends a government cabinet meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Jerusalem, Israel, Sunday, June 21, 2020. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Friday he was willing to immediately meet with the Palestinians for peace talks, vowing to advance reciprocal moves if Israel annexes West Bank lands.

In a Facebook post, Gantz lamented the lack of negotiations with the Palestinians, saying he has been in touch with the United States, European countries and other nations on how to kickstart negotiations on the basis of US President Donald Trump’s peace proposal. The plan, which the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority has rejected out of hand, designates some 30 percent of the West Bank for Israel and the rest for a prospective Palestinian state.

While pinning most of the blame on the Palestinians for the years-long absence of peace talks, Gantz said he would sit down with them immediately if they ask to negotiate.

“If they request to have serious negotiations I’m ready to be in Ramallah tomorrow morning to discuss this,” he said.

Gantz reiterated his conditions for extending sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, pledging Israel will not annex areas with large numbers of Palestinians and will grant equal rights to those living in annexed areas. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Palestinians in these areas would not get Israeli citizenship.

Gantz also said there would be “preliminary diplomatic and security work” to ensure any move doesn’t harm Israel’s security, “strategic assets” or peace agreements with Arab countries.

“I’ll advance reciprocal moves with the Palestinians,” he said, without elaborating.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas heads a leadership meeting at his headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 19, 2020. (Alaa Badarneh/Pool via AP)

Under Gantz’s agreement with Netanyahu, the premier can begin advancing annexation on July 1, which he has repeatedly pledged to do. Gantz and his Blue and White party’s No. 2, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, have backed Trump’s peace plan but have signaled reservations about annexing territory unilaterally.

The defense minister also addressed the issue of annexation in Blue and White’s faction meeting earlier Friday, calling it a “complex and historic process” that would have an effect on Israel for decades.

“What I’m looking at is allowing the existence of a true diplomatic peace process that aims for a peaceful life with our neighbors the Palestinians which has been absent for many years,” he was quoted saying in a statement from the party.

Gantz added: “We need to separate between political considerations and the good of the state. The diplomatic procedure will be responsible and focused.”

It was unclear if Gantz was referring to areas Israel could extend sovereignty, amid reports that annexation plans have been considerably scaled back.

Avi Berkowitz, left, US President Donald Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, leaves the US mission to the United Nations after attending a luncheon for members of the Security Council, February 7, 2020 in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Also Friday, Trump’s peace envoy Avi Berkowitz arrived in Israel for expected talks next week with Israeli leaders.

“I’m very happy to be in Israel. Shabbat Shalom everyone,” he wrote in a Hebrew-language tweet.

Berkowitz’s trip to Israel comes after the Trump administration held three days of talks on whether to back annexation, with a White House official saying no final decision was made.

The Dar al-Hayat Arabic newspaper claimed Friday that Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner has advised Netanyahu not to hurry ahead with unilateral annexation, because of the consequences for Israeli ties in the region. There was no confirmation of the report, which quoted an unnamed American official.

The Times of Israel reported earlier this month that the White House was “highly unlikely” to green light Israeli annexation by July 1, that more work was needed on the mapping of the territories, and that Berkowitz and Kushner would likely first come to Jerusalem to discuss outstanding issues.

This week’s White House discussions reportedly also included Kushner and national security adviser Robert O’Brien. It was not clear whether Trump was actively involved in the meetings.

A Channel 13 news report last week said US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who flew back to the US for the meetings, strongly backs Netanyahu’s declared intention to go ahead with the move starting July 1, but Kushner was said to be more ambivalent.

US President Donald Trump, left, turns to give a pen to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, at the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019 after signing the official proclamation formally recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. From left, White House adviser Jared Kushner, then US special envoy Jason Greenblatt, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (AP/Susan Walsh)

Concerned about the collateral damage that could follow from allowing Israel to move ahead with its plan, Washington is reportedly considering backing the annexation of only a handful of settlements close to Jerusalem.

“Ultimately, as the team approaches this thought of annexation, the main thing going through our heads is, ‘Does this in fact help advance the cause of peace?’ And therefore that is what will help drive a lot of the discussion,” a senior Trump administration official told Reuters in a report Monday evening.

The prospect of unilateral annexation has 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.

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