Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Tuesday signaled he could back unilateral annexation of West Bank lands, citing persistent refusals by the Palestinians to reach a deal with Israel, while reiterating his demand that the move not endanger Israel’s existing peace agreements.
“We won’t continue to wait for the Palestinians. If they say no forever to everything, then we’ll be forced to move forward without them,” Gantz said in a briefing to military reporters. He described the Palestinians’ ongoing rejectionism as their “deep shit” and said Israel would not get dragged into it.
However, he didn’t specify a date for when he would support a unilateral move or whether he would back starting the annexation process next week, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly pledged to do.
Under the coalition deal between Netanyahu and Gantz, the premier can begin on July 1 moving forward with annexing the roughly 30 percent of the West Bank slated for Israel under US President Donald Trump’s peace proposal. The proposal, which the Palestinian Authority has rejected out of hand, envisions a Palestinian state in the rest of the territory.
Gantz stressed his commitment to ensure Israel “remains safe, Jewish and democratic, and economically prosperous,” which he said Trump’s peace plan could best ensure.
“We need to not only manage the conflict but also shape it. We’ll act to minimize as much as possible the risk of the State of Israel as a binational state, while safeguarding the security of the state, with close deliberation with the US, countries of the world — and the Palestinians, as much as they want to be a part of the discourse,” he said.
With this, Gantz laid out his conditions for annexation, vowing there would be an “organized process” in coordination with the Israel Defense Forces and other security services.
He indicated he opposed annexing territory with many Palestinians in it, and that any Palestinians in territory to be annexed should be offered equal rights. He stressed the need for maintaining freedom of movement for Palestinians in the West Bank. He said annexation should be coordinated with other relevant players — an apparent reference to Jordan, Egypt and others in the region.
“We won’t take Palestinians into our territory, we won’t harm human rights or the right of movement, we’ll work in coordination with regional countries and we’re in contact with them, we won’t endanger the peace agreements,” he said.
Gantz is also said to favor that any annexation take place in the context of some kind of wider offer to the Palestinians — “a carrot” along with the stick, according to a Channel 13 report Tuesday night.
Peace Now, a settlement watchdog group opposed to annexation, slammed Gantz in response to his comments.
“After he retreated from his promise to replace Netanyahu, Gantz has turned into his official collaborator. The man who promised to bring peace has volunteered for a project to set alight the Middle East,” it said in a statement.
Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, also said during the briefing that he has reviewed with the military potential responses to annexation, which the IDF has been preparing for, and acknowledged the move could be met with violence by Palestinians in the West Bank.
“There is a security challenge in the Judea and Samaria area, and it may be a greater challenge as a result of applying the law if and when that happens,” he said, using the biblical names for the West Bank.
Israel’s security forces have been mostly left in the dark about Netanyahu’s annexation plans, hampering their ability to plan accordingly. A television report over the weekend, however, said security officials this week will be shown maps of areas the prime minister is seeking to annex.
According to various Israeli reports, the proposals floated by Netanyahu range from only annexing a small part of the West Bank in a largely symbolic move to extending sovereignty over all settlements and the Jordan Valley.
TV news reports Tuesday night said Netanyahu is hoping to get White House approval for a first phase of annexation that would include not only one or more of the major settlement blocs such as Ma’ale Adumim, Ariel or the Etzion Bloc, but also one or more relatively “isolated” settlements, deeper in the West Bank, to “convey the message” that those more isolated settlements would also not become part of a future Palestinian entity. A planned second phase of annexation would be more extensive — in line with Netanyahu’s pledge to extend Israeli law to all 132 settlements and the Jordan Valley.
Political sources close to Netanyahu were quoted on Channel 13 expressing frustration with Gantz, and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, for failing to back Netanyahu’s annexation plan. Unnamed sources close to the two Blue and White party leaders, by contrast, claimed Netanyahu has yet to specify exactly what he aims to annex and when, and thus they cannot formulate a firm stance on it.
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.
Netanyahu has said US support for annexation represents a historic opportunity, and the US has indicated that it will not oppose Israeli annexation but has lately signaled ambivalence about the timing of such a move.
Trump administration officials are expected to hold a decisive meeting this week on whether or not to approve Netanyahu’s plans, with a Reuters report Monday saying the White House is considering backing the annexation of only a handful of settlements in the Jerusalem, area due to concerns over how a larger action could affect regional ties.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.