Flurry of diplomacy a month before PM has said he intends to begin annexing up to 30% of the West Bank; position of Gantz, who held talks with Friedman, less clear
By TOI staff
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz held separate talks Monday with top US officials about West Bank annexation plans. Netanyahu has stated repeatedly in recent weeks that he intends to move ahead with the annexation of parts of the West Bank, beginning next month.
Netanyahu held a conference call with Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, who played a key role in drafting Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan for peace, which was unveiled at the White House in late January. Also on the call were Avi Berkowitz, the White House envoy on Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer.
That session came after Gantz met with Friedman, Hebrew media reports said.
According to a Channel 13 report, citing unnamed American sources, the US officials were exploring precisely if and how Israel intends to proceed with unilateral annexation — which Netanyahu has said would be coordinated with the administration — and came away from the conversations without a definitive answer.
Quoting a senior Israeli source, the TV report also said that the Americans “want to downplay the enthusiasm” for imminent annexation — “to greatly slow the process” — because the administration is preoccupied, among other matters, with nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis last week, on top of the COVID-19 crisis and accompanying economic fallout.
On Monday afternoon, Gantz’s office issued a statement that the defense minister had ordered IDF chief Aviv Kohavi to “step up preparations for the IDF ahead of diplomatic efforts on the agenda in the Palestinian arena” — a clear reference to annexation.
Netanyahu has vowed to unilaterally annex some 30 percent of the West Bank — covering all the settlements and the Jordan Valley — and reportedly told Likud MKs last week, “We have a target date in July to apply sovereignty and we will not change it.”
Blue and White party leader Gantz and his party colleague Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi have both endorsed the Trump plan. But Gantz and Ashkenazi have said annexation should be coordinated with other relevant players, such as the Palestinians and Jordan.
The Palestinians preemptively rejected the plan. Jordan has threatened to review its peace treaty with Israel over the annexation issue.
Gantz’s stance may impact Netanyahu’s decision on how to proceed, but the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition deal gives Netanyahu the right to advance annexation moves from July 1 — as long as he can secure a Knesset majority, which is almost guaranteed — even if Gantz opposes him.
US officials have given mixed signals, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying in Israel last month that annexation was Israel’s decision to make, while a State Department spokesperson later said in a telephone briefing for Israeli reporters that annexation “should be part of discussions between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
Netanyahu, immediately after the proposal was unveiled, said he intended to begin annexation within days, but Kushner rebuffed that plan, and the US instituted a joint American-Israel mapping committee, which has been working since, to determine the specific territory allocated to Israel under the Trump proposal.
Despite Gantz’s statement on Monday, the IDF has for some time been preparing for the potential fallout of unilateral annexation. Channel 13 reported that the IDF has been readying for a wide variety of potential scenarios, including an upsurge in Palestinian terrorism and widespread protests that might necessitate a call-up of reservists. It said two drills for a range of scenarios were planned for the next few days between the IDF and the Shin Bet security service.
However, the IDF top brass still do not know when, or even if, Israel may move ahead with annexation, and if so, on what scale, the TV report said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who last month announced the severing of security ties with Israel amid the talk of annexation, is to hold “an emergency meeting” in Ramallah on Tuesday night, the TV report said, to discuss how to thwart annexation by “legal and other means.”
The report quoted unnamed Palestinian sources saying that “a wave of violence” would be unavoidable if Israel goes ahead with annexation, since the Hamas terror group “aims to set the [Palestinian] street on fire.”