Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has turned the new US initiative for ending conflict with the Palestinians into a campaign “stunt” by pushing for the immediate annexation of West Bank settlements, Blue and White party co-leader Yair Lapid said Monday.
Lapid insisted he was against unilateral steps endangering what he described as President Donald Trump’s promising Mideast plan. He expressed hope that the Palestinians would come around to negotiating based upon the US blueprint.
“Nobody expects Israel or the Palestinians to take the plan face value the way it is and just make sure it happens. Everybody understands this is a framework, a very detailed one,” he told an audience of foreign correspondents in Jerusalem.
Lapid condemned what he said was the prime minister’s “unilateral steps” to annex parts of the West Bank.
“This is something that came out from the Prime Minister’s Office right after the plan was presented. Probably, it seems, for campaign reasons. And this is something you don’t do. This is too serious to become a stunt in the campaign,” he added.
The Trump plan is widely viewed as favorable to Israel since it would allow it to eventually extend sovereignty over all of its West Bank settlements along with the strategic Jordan Valley.
The Palestinians have angrily rejected the US plan. It would only provide Palestinians with limited autonomy in several chunks of territory with a capital on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and only if they meet stringent conditions.
Netanyahu has sought to sell the plan, and his close relationship to Trump, as a testament to his master statesmanship ahead of the country’s third elections in less than a year, on March 2. He also sought to galvanize his hardline base by annexing territory ahead of the election. The proposed move could establish facts on the ground that would be difficult to reverse, and make the prospect of a contiguous Palestinian state all but impossible.
But he’s been forced to walk that pledge back under criticism from the usually like-minded Trump administration, which has chided Israel’s zest for annexation.
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman reiterated that concern, saying Sunday that such a move was “subject to the completion of a mapping process by a joint Israeli-American committee,” and warning that rushing it undermines the plan.
“The president put out a plan for the next hundred years, not the next 30 days,” he said, alluding to the upcoming election.
He also said in a tweet: “Any unilateral action in advance of the completion of the committee process endangers the Plan & American recognition.”
The Palestinians seek the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War — for an independent state. The US is eager to keep the option of statehood on the table.
Settler leaders reacted furiously to Friedman’s comments, with one prominent West Bank mayor calling on Netanyahu to ignore the warnings from Washington and put the Trump administration “in its place.”
Lapid, whose centrist party is seeking to unseat Netanyahu, would not detail how his vision differed from Netanyahu’s beyond saying he would favor direct negotiation with the Palestinians rather than imposing a framework upon them.
“We are against anything that is unilateral,” he said.
At the same time, he called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to drop his intransigence, realize that time is not working in his favor and take a serious look at the plan as a basis for talks.
“Our approach to the Palestinians is to tell them that always saying ‘no’ isn’t a policy,” he said. “If instead of always automatically responding with violence and threats, they will take the time to delve deeply into the Trump plan they will see that it contains many opportunities for the Palestinian people.”
With former military chief Gantz at the helm, Blue and White is polling ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud three weeks before the election. Both sides are looking for a final surge to put them over the top after two deadlocked elections that did not produce a clear winner.
Lapid said Likud was a viable option to partner with but that his party would not join forces with Netanyahu, who has been indicted on three corruption charges.
Beyond the moral message, Lapid said Netanyahu was incapable of implementing the Trump plan or tackling any other major challenge given his pending corruption trial and the stagnation that has come with his lengthy rule.
“What is happening to him is the same thing that happens to every leader who holds on to power for too long – the unholy trinity: corruption, loss of empathy, no new ideas,” Lapid said.