FM Ashkenazi: 'I don't think it's likely to happen today'

Questions mount as Netanyahu’s self-imposed annexation date arrives

Signs point against major policy announcement despite premier’s repeated vows to begin extending Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank starting July 1

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jerusalem, June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jerusalem, June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israelis were awaiting word Wednesday from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his declared plan to annex parts of the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s coalition agreement set July 1 as the date from which it can begin implementing US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace proposal, which paves the way for the annexation of all settlements and the Jordan Valley, amounting to some 30 percent of the West Bank.

But as the sun rose on Netanyahu’s self-imposed kick-off date, signs pointed against a major policy announcement, with the prime minister and his allies hinting dramatic action was not imminent.

Foreign Ministry Gabi Ashkenzai on Wednesday morning told Army Radio he believed it was unlikely that anything major would occur during the day.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi speaks at a joint press conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, June 10, 2020. (Foreign Ministry/courtesy)

“I don’t know if there will be a declaration of sovereignty today — that should be asked of Netanyahu. It seems unlikely it will happen today,” said Ashkenazi. “I don’t think it’s likely to happen today.”

The Palestinians have rejected the Trump plan, which theoretically outlines the establishment of a Palestinian state, but said they were willing to discuss alternatives with the Israelis.

“We are not going to sit at a negotiating table where the annexation or the Trump plan are proposed,” senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat told AFP on Tuesday.

“It is not a plan, but a project to legitimize the occupation” of Palestinian territories, he said.

While the Palestinian Authority has vociferously opposed annexation, it has struggled in its effort to generate widespread public outrage against the planned move.

The West Bank village of al-Zaayem and the settlement of Maale Adumim in the background, June 30, 2020. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Netanyahu met on Tuesday with US Ambassador David Friedman and White House peace envoy Avi Berkowitz, and appeared to indicate after the meeting that he would miss the July 1 target date.

“I spoke about the question of sovereignty, which we are working on these days and we will continue to work on in the coming days,” Netanyahu said, meaning the groundwork ahead of the move will continue after July 1.

The Times of Israel reported on June 3 that US approval for annexation on July 1 was “highly unlikely.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Monday told Berkowitz that July 1 was “not a sacred date.”

Berkowitz’s trip to Israel came after the Trump administration held talks for three days last week on whether to back an Israeli annexation, with a White House official saying no final decision was made.

The Trump administration is reportedly pushing Israel to offer the Palestinians some sort of compensation in exchange for annexation, according to a Tuesday Channel 12 report.

Among the ideas is transferring an area to the Palestinians where they can build without limits, or redefining some Area C lands, where Israel maintains full control, as Area B, where Palestinians have civil control, the report said.

The developments came as Netanyahu and Gantz continued to spar publicly over the timing of the annexation plans, with the premier dismissing Gantz’s assertion that it is too early to begin implementing them.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Jerusalem, June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Gantz said Tuesday that Israel needs to move ahead on the Trump plan only with “partners” from the region and international backing.

In a separate meeting with US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, Netanyahu appeared to mock comments Gantz made during a meeting with the US team on Monday, in which he said annexation should wait until after the coronavirus pandemic has passed.

“We have serious issues to discuss,” Netanyahu said. “So serious they can’t even wait until after the coronavirus passes.”

Gantz on Monday had said that “dealing with the coronavirus and its socioeconomic and health consequences is the more pressing issue that needs to be attended to right now.”

Though he is seen as reluctant to move forward with unilateral annexation, Gantz, who also serves as alternate prime minister, agreed in the coalition deal to allow Netanyahu to advance such a plan after July 1 if he can secure a cabinet or Knesset majority.

The US appears to be conditioning the advancement of annexation on Gantz’s backing, in addition to support from Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, his deputy in the Blue and White party.

US peace envoy Avi Berkowitz (L) with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman in Jerusalem on June 29, 2020. (Avi Berkowitz/Twitter)

Netanyahu, speaking on Monday evening, however, said Gantz’s Blue and White party was “not a factor” in the decision on annexation.

The prospect of Israel annexing any parts of the West Bank has drawn international warnings and condemnation. Jordan’s King Abdullah II has said it would create a “massive conflict” in the Mideast and held a series of teleconferences with US Congressional leaders two weeks ago urging them to block the move.

A number of other Arab and European leaders, as well as former Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiators and experts, have warned that annexation could severely cripple the possibility of a two-state solution.

Many US Democrats have spoken out in opposition to annexation but have, including 191 House members who sent a letter to Netanyahu last week imploring him to halt his plans.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on Tuesday joined four House Democrats in calling for the US to cut or withhold aid from Israel if Netanyahu carries out the plan.

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