New FM Ashkenazi endorses Trump peace plan as ‘historic opportunity’

Incoming top diplomat says deal could shape Israel’s borders, but annexation should be ‘advanced responsibly’ in keeping with Jerusalem’s strategic interests

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Incoming Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, right, with his predecessor, incoming Finance Minister Israel Katz, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, May 18, 2020 (Foreign Ministry)
Incoming Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, right, with his predecessor, incoming Finance Minister Israel Katz, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, May 18, 2020 (Foreign Ministry)

Incoming Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi on Monday expressed warm support for the US administration’s plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, calling it a “historic opportunity” to shape Israel’s borders, while stopping short of explicitly endorsing a unilateral annexation of West Bank territory.

“We’re facing significant regional opportunities, primarily President [Donald] Trump’s peace initiative. I consider this plan a significant milestone,” he said at a modest changing-of-the-guard ceremony at the Foreign Ministry conference room in Jerusalem.

“President Trump presented us with a historic opportunity to shape the future of the State of Israel and its boundaries for decades to come,” he added. The words “and its boundaries” did not appear in his prepared remarks as they were sent to reporters by the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson.

“The plan will be advanced responsibly, with full coordination with the United States and maintaining all of the State of Israel’s peace agreements and strategic interests,” Ashkenazi said, sitting next to his predecessor, incoming Finance Minister Israel Katz.

Incoming Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, May 18, 2020 (Foreign Ministry)

The remark was a clear reference to Jordan, whose King Abdullah last week warned that an Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank would lead to a “massive conflict” with his country, and did not rule out pulling out of Amman’s peace deal with the Jewish state.

Jerusalem’s peace agreements with the Hashemite Kingdom and with Cairo “are strategic assets that we have to preserve,” Ashkenazi said. “I see great importance in strengthening our strategic ties with the countries of peace, Egypt and Jordan. They are our most important allies in tackling regional challenges.”

Most other members of the international community, especially Europe and the Arab world, vociferously oppose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to unilaterally apply sovereignty over the entire Jordan Valley and Israeli settlements across the West Bank.

Channel 13 news reported Monday that Ashkenazi and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz voiced reservations about annexation in their talks last week with visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

According to the coalition agreement signed between his Likud party and Ashkenazi’s Blue and White slate, the prime minister can bring the annexation plan to a vote in the Knesset or the cabinet as soon as July 1.

According to the agreement, annexation will be advanced in coordination with the US and “international dialogue on the issue, while pursuing the security and strategic interests of the State of Israel, including the need for maintaining regional stability, maintaining peace agreements and striving for future peace agreements.”

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum on May 17, 2020. (Knesset)

At the new government’s swearing-in at the Knesset Sunday, Netanyahu repeatedly vowed to advance his plan, while Gantz, the incoming defense minister, avoided the issue in his public remarks.

During his maiden speech as Israel’s top diplomat Monday at the Foreign Ministry, Ashkenazi — a former army chief who during his short stint in politics headed the Knesset’s influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee — said that he views diplomacy as a means to avoid war and to achieve peace.

“The diplomatic effort to stop the Iranian threat was and remains our most important mission,” he said. “We have to continue using all the tools at our disposal, in the diplomatic area of course, in addition to actions in the defense arena.”

Ashkenazi vowed to advance Israel’s ties with other countries in the Middle East but did not name them. He also promised to work to improve relations with Russia and Europe. “Let our actions speak,” he told the handful of Foreign Ministry employees present, and the hundreds of diplomats following the ceremony on their computer screens, upon which he and Katz raised a toast to the new government.

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