Hopelessly vague or calm and collected? Deciphering Gantz’s views on annexation

Hopelessly vague or calm and collected? Deciphering Gantz’s views on annexation

Blue and White leader’s positions on unilateral action appear nebulous and contradictory, but his associates insist they can be squared and that he supports the move…just not now

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

During his nearly four decades of service in the IDF, a nickname was pinned to Benny Gantz that every so often gets recalled in his new, post-army life as a politician: benny-huta.

The term can generally and generously be translated to describe someone who is laid-back and nonchalant, but has been used by Gantz’s detractors to brand him as lackadaisical, indecisive and lacking killer instincts.

For the latter group, it’s a rather bold nickname to try to attach to someone who managed to climb to the very top of the army’s ranks before swiftly transitioning into politics and reserving himself a spot in the Prime Minister’s Residence for November 2021 (so long as its current occupant, Benjamin Netanyahu, holds up his end of the coalition agreement).

But the benny-huta epithet has come to mind for many lawmakers and analysts in recent weeks, who have tried to decipher the Blue and White leader/defense minister’s views on Netanyahu’s plans to unilaterally annex as much as 30 percent of the West Bank.

Then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz has a snowball fight with a family of Palestinians along the West Bank’s Route 60 on December 15, 2013. (Judah Ari Gross/Israel Defense Forces)

While the Blue and White-Likud coalition deal ultimately leaves a final decision on the matter in Netanyahu’s — and not Gantz’s — hands, the dense wording of Clause 29 also conditions annexation on an “agreement to be reached with the United States.”

The White House, according to senior Israeli officials familiar with the matter, is keen on seeing Gantz get behind the controversial move as well, in order to demonstrate that there’s broad Israeli consensus behind annexation, before it goes ahead and gives it a green light. Essentially, Washington believes that the Blue and White leader is just as representative, if not more representative, of the Israeli mainstream on this issue than Netanyahu, so that it appears to have given him something akin to veto power — not exactly the kind of feat that a novice, lackadaisical politician can easily accomplish.

So what does Benny Gantz think about annexation?

Netanyahu, who has held several meetings with the defense minister on this very issue in recent weeks, has admitted to being unsure as to where his senior coalition partner stands. “We don’t know with regards to Blue and White — that’s a good question. I don’t know which side they fall on the issue either,” a Likud official quoted the premier as having said during a faction meeting last month.

The director of the Yesha umbrella council of settler mayors was asked the same question by reporters after Gantz met with his group in June. Yigal Dilmoni put his palms up and shrugged. “I don’t know. We haven’t managed to understand what his opinion is on the matter.”

Both observations were made by members of the right-wing camp who aren’t exactly harmed by presenting the Blue and White defense minister as oafish, but Gantz’s own comments on the matter over the years haven’t helped clarify matters much either.

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)

In a 2018 interview roughly a year before he jumped into the political ring, Gantz told Channel 12 that settlements like “[those in] the Etzion bloc, Ariel, Ofra and Elkana will remain forever,” grouping together communities closer to the Green Line with ones deep in the West Bank as ones he does not want to evacuate in a future peace agreement.

“But [the question is] how we arrange that they will remain forever,” Gantz added, without elaborating.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Affairs Ministry on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

While he has made a point in recent months of stressing his opposition to “unilateral moves,” that does not appear to be how he has always felt.

In his first interview upon entering politics as the head of the Israel Resilience Party, Gantz was pressed on whether he thought the 2005 Gaza Disengagement had been a mistake.

His response was tellingly vague, but also very clearly not the one of someone who claims to fundamentally oppose unilateral actions to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It was a legal move, a decision made by the Israeli government and carried out by the IDF and the settlers in a painful, but good manner. We need to take the lessons learned and implement them elsewhere,” he said.

Benny Gantz, head of the Israel Resilience party speaks at an event to present the party’s election slate, held in Tel Aviv on February 19, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Only later in 2019 when the Blue and White party published its platform was Gantz’s position on such unilateral moves clarified, a little. The centrist alliance vowed not to carry out another “disengagement.” Unilaterally withdrawing from land was “out,” but as for unilaterally extending sovereignty onto additional land, the platform did not specify.

Fast forward to this year and Gantz has gingerly begun speaking more openly about unilateral annexation as Netanyahu has vowed more incessantly to see it through. The White House peace plan’s envisioning of Israel enacting sovereignty over all West Bank settlements as well as the Jordan Valley effectively left the Blue and White leader with little choice.

But even before the US proposal was unveiled in January, Gantz made a campaign stop in the Jordan Valley settlement of Vered Yericho where he vowed to annex the strategic eastern corridor amounting to roughly 20% of the West Bank “in coordination with the international community.”

The qualifier subsequently highlighted regularly by Ganz has been ridiculed by some analysts as oxymoronic, given the vehement opposition both in Jordan and in the overwhelming majority of capitals around the globe to a unilateral move they argue would mark the death-knell for the two state solution.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (R) and Moshe Ya’alon at the Vered Yericho settlement in the West Bank on January 21, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Don’t take it literally

In an effort to explain the seeming contradiction, one Blue and White official speaking on the condition of anonymity said that while “much of the world fundamentally opposes annexation, it would have been easier to carry out had it been introduced as part of a dialogue with our allies, rather than a campaign promise to the settlers.”

Gantz appears to have adopted a similar position with regards to the overall Trump peace plan, which envisions Israel annexing far more territory than Gantz had previously signaled support for.

A source familiar with the Blue and White party’s discussions on the matter explained that Gantz is interested in promoting the peace plan “in its entirety. However, not even the administration is saying that the plan needs to be implemented from A-Z.”

“It should be looked at as a framework for negotiations, and the focus should not only be on the annexation part,” she said.

US President Donald Trump meets with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz in the White House in Washington on January 27, 2020. (Elad Malka)

Asked if that meant Gantz opposes certain parts of the plan, the source said the Blue and White chairman has expressed his disagreement with the “possibility” raised in the proposal that the Arab-Israeli towns in the so-called Triangle near the West Bank be transferred to the future Palestinian state. The source did not give another example of a part of the Trump plan that Gantz does not support.

The Blue and White chairman further believes the Trump plan represents an opportunity that both Ramallah and Amman — despite their public opposition —  may be able to get behind, including its clauses on annexation, the source said.

What you see from here, you don’t see from there

Gantz’s associates acknowledged that the coalition deal’s clause on allowing annexation to move forward on July 1 had been a compromise Blue and White was forced to swallow in exchange for a larger say on other issues. However, the centrist leader does appear to have increasingly warmed to the idea since becoming a member of the government slated to carry it out.

“What’s being offered to you, take. As for the rest, you can deal with it later,” several settler leaders quoted Gantz as having told them last month.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (middle) poses with settler leaders at the IDF’s Judea and Samaria Division Headquarters in the Beit El settlement on June 9, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

While similarly requesting to speak on background, another Blue and White official was intent on conveying that the party chairman’s support for annexation of the settlement blocs closer to the Green Line is not just theoretical. “What exactly did the left think he meant when throughout three elections he expressed support for enacting sovereignty in the blocs? That it was a front to woo right-wing voters?”

Gantz himself went further in a briefing to military reporters last month, saying, “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.” He described the Palestinians’ ongoing rejectionism as their “deep shit” and said Israel would not get dragged into it.

However, he later clarified that he opposed annexing territory with Palestinians in it and that any Palestinians in territory to be annexed should be offered equal rights. Gantz also stressed the need for maintaining freedom of movement for Palestinians in the West Bank.

He also vowed not “to endanger peace agreements” with the move, but did not elaborate with a plan on preventing a major diplomatic riff with Jordan, which has reportedly threatened to cancel its peace agreement with Israel if Jerusalem moves forward with annexation.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz speaks to reporters near the West Bank settlement on Migdal Oz, after yeshiva student Dvir Yehuda was killed in a terror attack, on August 8, 2019. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Now or never

But just as Gantz’s position on the matter had been shifting from foggy to theoretically supportive, his comments over the past week have forced those trying to understand his thinking to once again pause and scratch their heads.

The defense minister told White House peace envoy Avi Berkowitz on Monday that “July 1 is not a sacred date,” according to a source close to Gantz, dismissing the target day long hailed by Netanyahu for when he planned to start moving the matter forward.

“Dealing with the coronavirus and its socio-economic and health consequences is the more pressing issue that needs to be tended to right now,” the Blue and White leader was quoted as having said.

In a subsequent interview, Gantz went further. “One million unemployed people don’t know what we’re talking about right now,” he said in reference to discussions on annexation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Not only did he say that the issue should wait until after the coronavirus has dissipated but also that he expected the pandemic to last for a year to a year-and-a-half.

Even if the current polls are as off the mark as they were ahead of the previous US presidential election, presumptive Democratic party nominee Joe Biden could still edge out President Donald Trump in November.

So when Gantz talks of delaying annexation for another 12 to 18 months, he’s effectively proposing shelving it entirely as the Democratic nominee’s campaign has made clear that it will not support such a unilateral move, which both the prime minister and defense minister recognize cannot go ahead without US support.

For political reasons, the Blue and White leader will likely not go as far as to spell that conclusion out. But those who disparagingly refer to Gantz as benny-huta are likely to do so when they look for someone to blame if annexation isn’t carried out in the end.

Haviv Rettig Gur and Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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