Incoming Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Monday that, in addition to preparing the country’s security for the future, he intends to work towards implementation of all aspects of the Trump administration peace plan for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But Gantz stopped short of specifically endorsing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stated plan to swiftly, and unilaterally, implement a controversial clause of the plan — annexation of parts of the West Bank that the Palestinians want for a future state.
Most other members of the international community, especially Europe and the Arab world, vociferously oppose Netanyahu’s plan to unilaterally apply sovereignty over the entire Jordan Valley and Israeli settlements across the West Bank.
And Gantz is also believed to oppose unilateral annexation that could seriously hurt Israel’s relations with numerous countries, including neighbor Jordan.
Channel 13 news reported Monday that Gantz and ally Gabi Ashkenazi, the new foreign minister, voiced reservations about annexation in their talks last week with visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
At a changing-of-the-guard ceremony, where he formally replaced outgoing defense minister Naftali Bennett, Gantz said that striving for peace has always been an important part of the Zionist spirit.
“Alongside this and for its sake, we will maintain our strength, to seize regional opportunities in general, and to advance the US government and US President Trump’s peace plan and everything it contains,” Gantz told those gathered at the ceremony held in Tel Aviv’s Kirya military headquarters, where the ministry is located.
Gantz also said he intends to lead a multi-year program to enable the IDF and the defense community to deal with “current threats and future challenges.”
Passing the baton to Gantz, Bennett urged him not to let up in the campaign against Iran’s military presence in Syria.
“Though Iran has begun a process of withdrawal from Syria, the work needs to be completed. We’ve increased the number of attacks against Iranian forces and the Quds Force in Syria,” he said.
Bennett, who is now headed for the opposition, after being left out of the new government, added: “We can’t let up on Iran for a moment. We must increase the diplomatic, economic, military, and technological pressure, and act in other dimensions.”
Bennett, who had been defense minister since November last year, also urged securing the remains of two IDF soldiers held by the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip.
Serving as defense minister “was a great privilege,” Bennett said. “I have now finished. Benny, continue from here.”
Gantz’s remarks aligned with those of new Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who at his own installment ceremony earlier in the day also expressed his support for the Trump plan, without endorsing Netanyahu’s annexation intentions.
Ashkenazi, a member of Gantz’s Blue and White party, called the US administration’s plan a “historic opportunity” to shape Israel’s borders.
“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 ceremony at a 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.”
According to the coalition agreement signed between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’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. If he secures Knesset approval, he can move forward with the plan even without Blue and White’s support.
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,” the coalition pact states.
Bennett lost the defense minister post in the coalition deal, and chose to take his Yamina party into the opposition, rather than accept a minor ministry.
Earlier in the day, Gantz tapped former Air Force commander Amir Eshel to take over as director-general of his ministry, succeeding Udi Adam who has served in the position for the past four years.
Eshel, a close confidant of the former IDF chief of staff-turned-politician, will enter the position in the coming days, Gantz’s office said in a statement.
Adam, who has served in the position since 2016, said he will stay on a bit longer to prepare Eshel.
“I am ending my four-year tenure with a feeling of satisfaction from seeing through a number of processes, which contributed and are contributing to the State of Israel and will continue to contribute to the resilience of the IDF,” said Adam, who previously served as an IDF general and the director of Israel’s nuclear facility in Dimona.
Gantz thanked Adam for his service, noting his many accomplishments during his four-year tenure.
“I am full of appreciation for the way he managed and manages the ministry and the achievements he has achieved,” Gantz said.
During his tenure, Adam oversaw a major expansion of Israel’s defense exports, reaching a peak of $9 billion last year, according to the ministry.
“Adam dramatically improved the preparedness of the Defense Ministry for emergencies. Some of these processes came to bear in the Defense Ministry’s response to the coronavirus crisis,” the ministry said.
Adam was appointed to the position of director-general under then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon. He stayed on under Ya’alon’s successors: Avigdor Liberman, Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett.
Eshel served as the head of the Israeli Air Force from 2012 to 2017, commanding it during the military’s 2012 and 2014 operations against the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip, while Gantz was IDF chief of staff.
After retiring from the military, Eshel continued to advise Gantz, accompanying him to the United States earlier this year, during the unveiling of Trump’s plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.