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Netanyahu says he kept Gantz and Askenazi in the dark to avoid leak of UAE deal

‘They could talk about it incautiously with associates and the information could get out,’ PM says of the ministers, both former IDF chiefs, in interview with right-wing daily

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 7, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/Pool via AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 7, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/Pool via AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he kept his coalition partners in the dark about the emerging normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates over fears the news would be leaked and plans to formalize relations would be disrupted by regional foes.

Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan announced the agreement on Thursday, marking only the third ever normalization of relations between Israel and an Arab state.

The deal was panned by Palestinian leaders, as well as Turkey and Iran.

In an interview with the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom published Monday, the prime minister was asked why he did not inform the leaders of Blue and White, including Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, of the emerging deal until the very last moment.

“Let them know? I’ve been working on this for years. They’ve been here for two months,” he replied. “That was the agreement [with the other parties]. To keep things discreet so as not to allow Iran and others to thwart it.”

Asked if he thought Gantz or Ashkenazi, two former military chiefs, would have leaked the deal to Iran, Netanyahu said: “Not to Iran. I didn’t say they’d leak to Iran. They could talk about it incautiously with associates and the information could get out.”

US President Donald Trump (right) shakes hands with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in the White House in Washington, May 15, 2017. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

While Israel-UAE cooperation has been going on for some time, it was officially unacknowledged until Thursday’s announcement. The White House said last week it expected a formal ceremony in Washington within weeks in which Netanyahu and Bin Zayed would sign a formal agreement establishing normalized diplomatic relations between the countries.

The UAE opened its telephone network to calls from Israel on Sunday after the two countries’ foreign ministers spoke by phone.

To seal the deal, Netanyahu committed to the Trump administration and Bin Zayed to suspend his campaign promise to annex parts of the West Bank, a move that drew angry condemnation from leaders of West Bank settlements but was largely supported by the general public.

Netanyahu has insisted the plan has not been shelved and will eventually be carried out, though settlers doubt such claims.

Benny Gantz (L) and Gabi Ashkenazi at a Blue and White campaign event in Kfar Saba on February 12, 2020. (Gili Yaari/ Flash90)

In the Israel Hayom interview, Netanyahu also addressed political instability at home, warning that the government would collapse if Blue and White behaved like “an internal opposition” to the government.

“If Gantz and Ashkenazi don’t act like a government within a government or an internal opposition, then the partnership can continue three more years at least. If not, the government will collapse.”

He added: “I hope it doesn’t fall apart now. In the coronavirus period we established the government to fight the pathogen, and we’ll do everything necessary to ensure this government doesn’t fall apart.”

The coalition is currently in crisis over the national budget, with Netanyahu seeking to change the coalition deal to pass a single-year rather than a two-year budget, as well as reportedly demanding other changes to the signed agreements.

The parties have until August 25 to pass either a budget or a bill to delay the deadline, or the country will automatically go to a new election.

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