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Gantz tells army to step up preparations, as West Bank annexation looms

A month ahead of proposed extension of Israeli sovereignty to settlements and Jordan Valley, the government fills in the military on aspects of its plans

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, right, meet with the IDF General Staff in the military's Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv on May 18, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, right, meet with the IDF General Staff in the military's Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv on May 18, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Monday ordered IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi to “step up preparations for the Israel Defense Forces,” ahead of a government proposal to annex portions of the West Bank, his office said.

The military has roughly one month to complete preparations ahead of the government’s plan to extend Israeli sovereignty to settlements and the Jordan Valley — some 30 percent of the West Bank — which many defense analysts and officials have warned could lead to an outbreak of Palestinian violence, as well as threaten Jerusalem’s ties with its neighbor Jordan and other Arab countries.

Gantz himself is believed to oppose unilateral annexation, but his coalition deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allows the latter to push forward with the plan from July 1, so long as he can secure approval from the Knesset — where he is almost guaranteed a majority — and from the United States.

Though the military had already been preparing for potential unrest in response to the move, until Gantz’s meeting with Kohavi on Monday, the IDF was doing so without having much specific information about the government’s intentions, aspects of which still remain undecided.

In his statement, the defense minister did not explicitly refer to annexation, but ordered Kohavi to “step up preparations for the IDF ahead of diplomatic efforts on the agenda in the Palestinian arena.”

A Palestinian rioter hurls a rock during clashes with Israeli security forces following a protest in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on January 29, 2020. (Musa AL SHAER / AFP)

“The defense minister also updated the chief of staff on advancements on the diplomatic front,” a spokesperson said, without elaborating.

Gantz said he also plans to appoint a point-person to coordinate between the different government bodies involved in the process.

“A joint team will be formed that will bring together recommendations — on an operational level — for the efforts that are on the agenda for the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” his office said.

The move would be coordinated with the United States, in accordance with a Middle East plan US President Donald Trump unveiled in January, which endorsed extending Israeli sovereignty over these parts of the West Bank.

However, the entire peace plan has been rejected by the Palestinian Authority, which seeks the West Bank as territory for a future Palestinian state.

The government’s exact plans of when and where it intends to extend sovereignty have yet to be released and are still being discussed by a joint Israeli-US committee that is tasked with mapping the exact territory to be annexed and the status of each piece of land.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, September 10, 2019. Netanyahu vowed to annex the Jordan Valley and, later, all West Bank settlements if he were to win national elections. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told government ministers that he planned to extend Israeli sovereignty to portions of the West Bank at some point in July.

Ze’ev Elkin, a member of the top-level security cabinet, said an exact date had not yet been set because of the ongoing efforts of the joint mapping committee.

“I know they’re working on the map, and that process could take some more time,” Elkin told Army Radio on Sunday. “July 1 is the first day when the matter can be brought to the cabinet and the Knesset. It could possibly take a few more days or weeks, but generally I think the prime minister is very clear that he intends to advance this.”

Elkin said there were many signs that the mapping would be done by “sometime in July.”

Defense analysts have warned of a potential outbreak of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in response to Israeli annexation efforts.

Ahead of the move, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said his security forces were cutting ties with the Israeli military, a claim that has since proven to be overstated, as some degree of coordination has continued despite the dramatic announcement, though to a lesser extent than normal.

Jordan, with which Israel has its longest border, has also threatened to review its relationship with Jerusalem, if the Jewish state goes ahead with the controversial plans.

“We will not accept unilateral Israeli moves to annex Palestinian lands and we would be forced to review all aspects of our relations with Israel,” Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz told the official Petra news agency last month.

European countries, as well as Arab nations with which Israel does not have formal ties, have also warned Israel against the consequences of annexation.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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