Gantz vows to protect judiciary from attack, in mild swipe at Netanyahu
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Gantz vows to protect judiciary from attack, in mild swipe at Netanyahu

Without mentioning premier by name, Blue and White head says Israel must retain ‘a strong and independent judiciary,’ endorses Trump’s peace plan as ‘historic’ opportunity

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaking at his Blue and White party's faction meeting in the Knesset, May 27, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaking at his Blue and White party's faction meeting in the Knesset, May 27, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on Wednesday that his Blue and White party will protect the rule of law and ensure that the country retains “a strong and independent judiciary,” in what appeared to be a mild critique of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements against the law enforcement system that put him on trial.

Speaking to his Blue and White Knesset faction, Gantz also appeared to endorse some form of West Bank annexation, albeit taking a less assertive stance than Netanyahu, his partner in a power-sharing deal.

On Sunday Netanyahu, who is on trial in three criminal cases, launched a scathing attack against the police, state prosecution, attorney general, media and others he said were setting him up as part of a politically motivated conspiracy to oust him from power.

“Much has been said this week about the legal system,” Gantz told his party’s Knesset members, without mentioning Netanyahu by name. “Just as the State of Israel requires a functioning government, it also requires a strong and independent judiciary. Protecting the rule of law is not a personal matter, it’s a national interest.”

Flanked by ministers and lawmakers from his Likud party, Netanyahu on Sunday delivered lengthy televised remarks before the start of his hearing at the Jerusalem District Court on Sunday, ripping into police and prosecutors as he became the first Israeli premier to stand trial on criminal charges while in office. He also declared that all his right-wing supporters were on trial along with him.

“Elements in the police and State Attorney’s Office banded together with left-wing journalists… to fabricate baseless cases against me,” the prime minister charged. “The goal is to oust a strong right-wing prime minister and to banish the right-wing camp from leadership of the country for many years.”

“I’m not a poodle… and therefore they need to remove me by any means,” said Netanyahu, who faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement before entering a courtroom at the Jerusalem District Court on May 24, 2020, for the start of his corruption trial. Among those alongside him from left are Likud MKs and ministers Gadi Yevarkan, Amir Ohana, Miri Regev, Nir Barkat, Israel Katz, Tzachi Hanegbi, Yoav Gallant and David Amsalem (Yonathan SINDEL / POOL / AFP)

Gantz has faced harsh criticism for his milquetoast response to Netanyahu’s tirade. Despite having campaigned for over a year — and three elections — for an end to Netanyahu’s tenure over the criminal charges he faces, on Sunday he issued an extremely toned-down statement saying that, “just like every citizen, the prime minister too has the presumption of innocence.”

On Wednesday, he said that his party, as part of the unity coalition, would not allow damage to the legal system.

“The rule of law and equality before the law are superior values in a democracy,” he said. “We have all the tools at our disposal to protect these values — both in regards to legislation and government decisions — and we will use all of these tools when there is a need.”

In a possible response to Netanyahu’s Monday statements that he plans to push ahead with unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank, Gantz also gave an endorsement of US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, while not ruling out applying sovereignty to the West Bank.

“We are currently presented with meaningful windows of opportunity that could improve and even transform the reality in the region across all fronts, including, of course, the American government’s peace plan,” Gantz said.

He stressed that the new government will work “to ensure the best outcome that will fortify Israel’s security and protect our state and international interests.”

“We will move forward responsibly and intelligently — the only way to bring about historic achievements strengthening Israel’s security in years to come,” he added.

The first conference of the new unity government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and alternate prime minister Benny Gantz at the Knesset, May 17, 2020. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

At the opening of his Likud faction’s weekly meeting at the Knesset on Monday, Netanyahu said there has never been a better time in the country’s history to apply sovereignty, which is tantamount to annexation, to these areas.

“We have an opportunity that hasn’t existed since 1948 to apply sovereignty in a wise way and as a diplomatic step in Judea and Samaria, and we will not let this opportunity pass,” Netanyahu said, referring to the year the State of Israel was established and using the biblical names for the West Bank territory.

Later, during the part of the meeting that was closed to media, Netanyahu told the gathered MKs, “We have a target date in July to apply sovereignty and we will not change it,” according to Hebrew media reports.

The move would be coordinated with the US, in accordance with the Middle East plan US President Donald Trump unveiled in January, which endorsed extending Israeli sovereignty over roughly 30 percent of the West Bank.

However, the entire peace plan has been rejected by the Palestinians, who seek the West Bank as territory for a future Palestinian state. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced last week that he was cutting off all security cooperation with Israel because of Netanyahu’s declared intentions to annex settlements and the strategic Jordan Valley.

Last month, Netanyahu struck a complex power-sharing deal with Gantz. Under the arrangement, the prime minister can bring up his proposal to annex some 30 percent of the West Bank — all the settlements and the Jordan Valley — on July 1, when he will need approval from either the cabinet or the Knesset.

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