Defense Minister Benny Gantz told US diplomats that West Bank annexation moves should not be rushed through this week but can wait until after Israel deals with more pressing issues, pushing back against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s self-imposed July 1 start date for the controversial step.
Gantz met Monday with US President Donald Trump’s peace envoy Avi Berkowitz and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, his office said, the latest in a series of meetings as Israel and the US attempt to coordinate and map out plans to begin to implement the US administration’s Middle East peace proposal.
“July 1 is not a sacred date,” Gantz told Berkowitz, a source close to Gantz said to The Times of Israel. “Dealing with the coronavirus and its socioeconomic and health consequences is the more pressing issue that needs to be tended to right now.”
Gantz also hailed Trump’s peace plan as “a historic step that constitutes the best framework to promote the Middle East peace process.”
“It should be advanced with our strategic partners in the region and with the Palestinians, to arrive at an outline that benefits all sides in a responsible, proportional and reciprocal manner,” he said, according to the source.
In public comments later in the day, Gantz appeared to refer to annexation as well when he said at a Blue and White faction meeting that “Those things not related to the fight against coronavirus will wait until the virus is behind us.”
Netanyahu, in comments to his Likud faction, was dismissive of Gantz’s comments. “We are in talks with the US team here in Israel. We are doing it discreetly,” he said. “The matter is not up to Blue and White, they are not a factor either way.”
Under Gantz’s coalition 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.
Berkowitz arrived in Israel for talks with Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu and Ashkenazi.
Berkowitz’s trip to Israel comes after the Trump administration held three days of talks last week on whether to back annexation, with a White House official saying no final decision was made.
Gantz said Friday he was willing to immediately meet with the Palestinians for peace talks.
In a Facebook post, Gantz lamented the lack of negotiations with the Palestinians, saying he had been in touch with the United States, European countries and other nations on how to kickstart negotiations on the basis of 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.
Gantz reiterated his conditions for extending sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, pledging Israel would not annex areas with large numbers of Palestinians and would grant equal rights to those living in annexed areas. Netanyahu has said Palestinians in these areas would not get Israeli citizenship.
The Dar al-Hayat Arabic newspaper claimed Friday that Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner has advised Netanyahu not to rush into 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.
A Channel 13 news report earlier this month said that Friedman, who had flown back to the US for the meetings before returning to Israel, strongly backs Netanyahu’s declared intention to go ahead with the move starting July 1, but Kushner was said to be more ambivalent.
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 last week.
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.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.