Gantz vows to annex Jordan Valley ‘in coordination with international community’
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Bennett: We'll settle as much as we can in West Bank Area C

Gantz vows to annex Jordan Valley ‘in coordination with international community’

Netanyahu urges Blue and White head to support measure before March election; settler leader calls pledge ’empty,’ saying world powers will never accept such a move

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz (C) speaks to reporters during a visit to the Jordan Valley on January 21, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)
Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz (C) speaks to reporters during a visit to the Jordan Valley on January 21, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz vowed on Tuesday to annex the Jordan Valley “in coordination with the international community” if he wins the upcoming election.

In what appeared to be the top centrist lawmaker’s latest effort to cater to right-leaning voters, Gantz, during a visit to what he referred to as “Israel’s eastern protective wall,” said the area making up roughly 20 percent of the West Bank would remain part of the Jewish state in any future peace agreement and that previous governments that had been willing to negotiate over the strategic region had been mistaken.

But right-wing officials and settler leaders largely scoffed at Gantz’s pledge. Suggesting that it was nothing more than a bluff, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the Blue and White leader not to wait until after the election, but rather support the measure if it is brought before the Knesset for a vote in the coming weeks.

“Benny Gantz, I expect an answer by the end of the day,” Netanyahu said in a statement challenging the Blue and White leader.

Blue and White lawmakers visit the Jordan Valley on January 21, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)

Gantz subsequently issued a similar challenge to Netanyahu, tweeting: “Try for once not to lie and here’s a tip — you can apply Israeli law in the Jordan Valley in a cabinet decision within two hours, without any Knesset discussion. Let’s see you.”

Netanyahu continued the exchange of jabs, tweeting: “Benny Gantz, I am happy you have finally decided to support my initiative to apply Israeli law in the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea. I expect full support by you and Blue and White for this historic move. Very soon I will put you to that test.”

In the past, the premier has acknowledged that for a transitional government to carry out such a move would be legally problematic. Ahead of the previous election, he vowed to immediately annex the Jordan Valley if he were to win. However, the results led to an extension of the deadlock that has now paralyzed Israeli politics for over a year and neither he nor Gantz were able to form a government that would have been able to carry out the controversial move. However, at least rhetorically, Netanyahu appears to have changed his stance, sensing an opportunity to force Gantz out of his comfort zone.

The Blue and White leader has long asserted that he opposes any unilateral solutions to the conflict, and given that annexation would be a nonstarter for the Palestinian leadership (and could also risk ending Israel’s diplomatic ties with Egypt and Jordan), such a move would almost certainly fail to receive bilateral support.

Similarly unimpressed by Gantz’s pledge was Yesha settlement umbrella council leader and Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman David Elhyani. “There’s no such thing as enacting sovereignty in coordination with the international community,” he said, pointing out that much of the world’s leadership would staunchly oppose such a move.

“This is a declaration empty of meaning,” Elhayani concluded.

From left to right: Blue and White Party MK Yair Lapid, party leader Benny Gantz, Special Adviser to the US President Jared Kushner, and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman during a meeting at the US Embassy in Jerusalem, October 28, 2019. (Jeries Mansour, US Embassy Jerusalem)

From the left, Labor-Gesher-Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz blasted the announcement, saying it would forestall any chance of a future agreement with the Palestinians. “This makes clear that center-left voters have nothing to look for in Blue and White,” he said.

Shortly after his declaration regarding the Jordan Valley, Gantz was asked whether he would support the Trump administration releasing its peace plan before the upcoming election. Earlier this month, the Blue and White chairman had said such a move would constitute an “interference” in Israel’s elections and urged Washington to wait. But in an about-face on Tuesday, Gantz said he had no issue with the immediate publication of the plan.

“I hope President Trump comes along and publishes his plan. Several weeks have passed. A lot of dramatic things are happening in the Middle East, and I look forward to the publication of the plan,” Gantz said.

US President Donald Trump’s special adviser and peace plan architect Jared Kushner will travel to Israel Wednesday to attend the World Holocaust Forum and likely meet with Netanyahu and Gantz.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, July 31, 2019 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The Trump administration has said it is once again weighing releasing its long-awaited plan before the March elections.

Over the course of the last two elections in 2019, administration officials repeatedly said they would wait until Israel’s democratic process resolved itself before unveiling the proposal. With a third election on the way, the White House could end up shelving the plan indefinitely, not wanting to release it in the middle of America’s 2020 presidential election cycle.

Publishing the move now could provide a boost to Netanyahu, especially if it is favorable to Israel, possibly easing some of the pressure on the prime minister stemming from the attorney general’s announcement that he will indict him on corruption charges.

Gantz’s Jordan Valley visit comes amid widespread reports that Blue and White is seeking to woo right-wing voters in the upcoming election in order to expand its 33-32 seat differential over Likud. The party has secured the services of a new PR company, which has released a series of ads targeting national religious voters.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (C) visits the Beit El settlement on January 21, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Separately on Tuesday, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett toured the Beit El settlement in the central West Bank, where he declared that Israel would seek to settle as much land as possible in Area C — the 60 percent of the West Bank under Israeli security and civil control based on the 1995 Oslo Accords.

“This morning, the Palestinian prime minister announced his campaign to seize control over Area C,” Bennett said in reference to an interview Mohammad Shtayyeh gave to the Haaretz daily in which he said he was working to blur the differentiation between Area C and Area B — the latter of which is under Palestinian civil control and Israeli security control.

“So far, this whole battle has been one-sided. The Palestinians have taken to the ring while we have not. That reality is over,” Bennett declared.

Last month, Bennett said that combating illegal Palestinian construction in Area C — of which the Jordan Valley is part — would be a top priority for his office.

Palestinians are rarely granted building permits in Area C and recent years have seen the total number of approvals remain in the single digits, compared to the thousands green-lighted for Israeli settlers. In apparent recognition of the discrepancy, the cabinet last August approved a package of building approvals in Area C that included 700 permits for Palestinians and 3,000 permits for Israelis.

Against the backdrop of the disparity, the number of illegally built structures by Palestinians in Area C doubled in the past decade to over 60,000, according to figures from Regavim, a group that monitors illegal Palestinian construction.

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