Netanyahu fears gaps with Gantz will erode US support for annexation — report

Parties said disagreeing on key details of plan, which Washington says have to be agreed upon to get its backing; pro-Netanyahu daily says PM weighing splitting move into 2 phases

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Knesset, May 17, 2020. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Knesset, May 17, 2020. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)

Differences between the two main parties in Israel’s unity government could end up derailing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank, with associates of Netanyahu fearing the internal disagreements will cause the United States to back out of supporting the move, a report said Wednesday.

The Haaretz daily cited sources involved in recent talks among Netanyahu, US Ambassador David Friedman and Blue and White’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi as saying the differences within the government are big and would be “hard to bridge.”

The talks this week were said to have revealed significant disagreements between the Likud and Blue and White parties on the size of the territory to be annexed, the schedule for implementing the move, and the order of the steps that should be taken.

A report in a separate daily claimed that Netanyahu may first try to annex settlements deep in the West Bank, the latest in a series of claims attributed to unnamed government sources about various ways in which the process can move forward, a sign that with two weeks to go before a self-imposed deadline Netanyahu’s plans remain largely in the air.

While Netanyahu has highlighted the need to map out the details of the areas that will be annexed, Gantz is pushing for first securing understandings with Arab states that have close ties with Israel, chiefly Jordan and Egypt, the Israel Hayom report said.

Under a coalition deal between Netanyahu and Gantz signed last month, the government can pursue annexation of all the settlements and the Jordan Valley — the 30 percent of the West Bank allocated to Israel under the peace plan rolled out by US President Donald Trump’s administration — from July 1. The Trump administration has indicated it will not oppose Netanyahu’s declared plans to do so, providing Israel accepts its “Peace to Prosperity” plan, which conditionally provides for a Palestinian state on the remaining 70% of the territory.

US officials have reportedly told Netanyahu that the Trump administration will only support the extension of Israeli law to West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley if details of the plan are agreed on between the two parties.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, center, and then-Tourism Minister Yariv Levin during a meeting to discuss mapping extension of Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank, held in the Ariel settlement, February 24, 2020. (David Azagury/US Embassy Jerusalem)

Blue and White officials have said that they cannot present a position on the plan, as the premier has thus far failed to outline it clearly.

Netanyahu associates are said to fear that if the parties don’t find a middle ground soon, the White House will lose interest in the move and it will be taken off the agenda.

If Democratic presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden — who has clarified that he’s against annexation — wins the November elections, that would put Jerusalem on a collision course with Washington.

The Palestinians have rejected the US plan, and earlier this month said they had submitted a counter-proposal for a demilitarized Palestinian state to the Middle East peacemaking Quartet — the US, EU, UN and Russia.

A second report in the staunchly pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily claimed that Netanyahu was considering splitting the annexation into two phases, with isolated settlements deep in the West Bank being annexed first.

The report said the annexed land would make up 10% of the West Bank, though isolated settlements only make up a small fraction of that.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks to the UN Security Council at the United Nations headquarters on February 11, 2020 in New York. (Johannes EISELE / AFP)

The report said that after the first phase, Netanyahu would call on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to come to the negotiation table, hoping that if he refuses — as expected — that would lend extra legitimacy to the second phase, when the remaining 20% of the West Bank territory allocated to Israel under the Trump plan, including the Jordan Valley and the major settlement blocs, would be annexed.

The report said the plan was initial and that no maps had been drawn for it.

It’s not clear if the US, which is reportedly seeking Gulf buy-in for its peace proposal, would support a two-phased plan that starts with the most controversial aspects of the annexation.

The report, which did not cite any sources, is the latest in a series of various competing claims about what Netanyahu may or may not be intending to do, many of which are thought to be trial balloons with no fully formed policy prescriptions behind them.

Netanyahu has vowed to push ahead with annexation by July 1, but Israeli and American sources have made clear that necessary mapping work will not be done in time, seemingly leaving the premier scrambling to carry out some attenuated form of annexation in order to save face with his settler constituency.

Gantz told the American Jewish Committee’s annual conference on Monday that the Trump plan should be implemented in coordination with other affected players.

“It gives us a realistic approach of how a stable future should look…. I intend to promote it as much as I can in a most responsible way,” Gantz said in an English-language interview during the virtual confab. “We have to work on the basis of it and we have to move forward with regional partners, with local partners, of course, with consensus within the Israeli society and with full coordination and acceptance of the backup we need from the United States.”

Netanyahu’s vows to push ahead with unilateral annexation have 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.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II arrives for the opening parliamentary session in the capital Amman on November 10, 2019. (Khalil Mazraawi/AFP)

According to a Palestinian report on Monday, Jordan’s King Abdullah II has refused to accept phone calls from Netanyahu, amid seething anger in the Hashemite kingdom over the prime minister’s annexation plans.

The Ma’an news agency report, which cited a Jordanian official, said Jordan is also refusing to schedule a meeting with Gantz to discuss the annexation plans and the Trump administration’s peace plan.

Abdullah spoke out unilateral annexation on Tuesday, telling US senators it was unacceptable.

The issue has also threatened to upend years of diplomatic work forging quiet ties between Israel and Gulf states. On Friday, the United Arab Emirates’ influential ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, warned in a Hebrew op-ed published in an Israeli paper that Abu Dhabi would freeze normalization if annexation moves ahead.

But on Tuesday, Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told the AJC conference that normalization with Israel was continuing despite Abu Dhabi’s opposition to annexation.

“Can I have a political disagreement with Israel but at the same time try and bridge other areas of the relationship? I think I can. I think that is fundamentally where we are,” Gargash said during an interview for the American Jewish Committee Virtual Global Forum.

Other Gulf states have remained mostly quiet about annexation, though an Israeli diplomatic official told Army Radio Monday that ties with these countries would be set back by annexation moves.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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