Netanyahu, Gantz, Ashkenazi meet US envoy, amid differences on annexation

Netanyahu, Gantz, Ashkenazi meet US envoy, amid differences on annexation

Israeli leaders sit down with David Friedman as PM’s planned July 1 start date for unilateral move nears; report says partial annexation or postponement of plan being weighed

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and alternate-PM and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2020. (Sebastian Scheiner / POOL / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and alternate-PM and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2020. (Sebastian Scheiner / POOL / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat down Sunday with US Ambassador David Friedman, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin to discuss plans to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank in accordance with the Trump administration’s peace plan.

Friedman has met with all the senior politicians several times, though this may be the first summit when they are all present together to hash out the subject.

Washington has reportedly been pressuring Netanyahu to only move ahead with the controversial move if Gantz and Ashkenazi agree, lending the step extra legitimacy as representative of an Israeli consensus. Gantz and Ashkenazi both publicly back US President Donald Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan, but have not endorsed Netanyahu’s planned unilateral annexation of territory allocated to Israel under the proposal. Still, Gantz was last week quoted as telling settler leaders, “What’s being offered to you, take. As for the rest, you can deal with it later.”

Channel 12 said several options were being discussed in what it called Sunday’s “fateful” meeting, including partial annexation or postponing the move.

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)

Policymakers and diplomats in Washington are increasingly warning that the Israeli government’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank, backed by the US, would spark a crisis and damage the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

With Netanyahu’s July 1 start date fast approaching, multiple stakeholders in the conflict pleaded with the Trump administration and members of the US Congress last week to oppose Netanyahu’s vow to unilaterally extend Israeli sovereignty to the settlements and the Jordan Valley — the 30% of the West Bank allocated to Israel under the Trump peace plan.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) told members of Congress last week that it has no objection to them criticizing Netanyahu’s annexation plans, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The pro-Israel lobby usually works assiduously to discourage any criticism of Israel.

Under a coalition deal between Netanyahu and Gantz signed last month, the government can pursue annexation backed by the US starting July 1. The Trump administration has indicated it will not oppose Israeli moves to annex lands that would become part of the country under its peace plan, which conditionally envisions a Palestinian state on the remaining some 70 percent of the West Bank, pockmarked with Israeli settlement panhandles and enclaves.

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive for an event in the East Room of the White House at which Trump presented his Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal, January 28, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Netanyahu’s declared plan has been met with vociferous opposition in Europe, the Arab world and domestically, with warnings that it could add instability in the region, lead to further international isolation and damage Israel’s democratic character.

Netanyahu and many on the Israeli right have defended the annexation moves as long-sought recognition of a reality on the ground after decades of settlement building and military rule of the West Bank, with peace efforts long moribund due to Palestinian intransigence.

Israel’s Washington envoy Ron Dermer has been pushing the Trump administration to give Israel the green light to carry out its plan, fearing that his rival Joe Biden might block it if he’s elected inNovember, according to a Channel 13 report in May.

While the State Department has said it is ready to recognize Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank, an official told The Times of Israel in April that the step should be “in the context of the Government of Israel agreeing to negotiate with the Palestinians along the lines set forth in President Trump’s Vision.” Well-placed sources told the Times of Israel earlier this month that the US was “highly unlikely” to back any unilateral annexation by Netanyahu’s July 1 target date, in part because the mapping process, a precondition for the move, is weeks if not months away from completion.

The move, if enacted, would be a major turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Palestinians, foreign leaders, US lawmakers and veteran peace negotiators saying it would severely weaken the prospects of the internationally long-endorsed two-state solution.

Eric Cortellessa contributed to this report.

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