Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank faces a major hurdle as his coalition partner Defense Minister Benny Gantz continues to waver about the matter. This comes amid growing sentiments against the plan from members of the international community, with countries such as Britain and Germany warning that it goes against the fourth Geneva Convention.
Lack of Action
Although Netanyahu had set a target of July 1 to kickstart the process by having the cabinet debate the matter, the day passed by without any action, further signalling widening rifts in the newly-crafted coalition government.
Ever since venturing into politics Gantz has always pursued a goal of peaceful co-existence of the Israelis and the Palestinians. This totally contradicts Netanyahu who has always used the issue of West Bank annexation to whip up nationalistic emotions among Israelis.
The Trump Admin’s Annexation Plan
When US President Donald Trump’s unveiled his Middle East peace plan that provides the basis for the annexation of West Bank, Israel was preparing to go the polls. It was also the time Netanyahu was under attack from the opposition for contemplating immunity against criminal charges he is facing.
This made many opposition politicians and analysts conclude that Trump’s main intention was to boost chances of Netanyahu’s re-election as Prime Minister. The fact that he invited Netanyahu to the White House for the unveiling of the plan further reinforced this line of argument.
“To unveil such a plan five weeks before an election is very suspicious,” said Avigdor Lieberman the leader of pro Gantz Yisrael Beytenu.” The very timing of it will prevent any serious, in depth discussion of the proposal.”
Although Gantz — who was Netanyahu’s main opponent in the election had also been invited — it was not known whether he would honor the invitation. Sources close to him had even claimed that he felt it was a trap, and was therefore not ready to travel to Washington.
Gantz also feared that Trump was likely to treat him as Netanyahu’s junior, and relegate him to playing a minor role during discussions. “In Blue and White, they fear it will be more political than diplomatic, and that Netanyahu is bringing Gantz to Washington not to praise him, but to diminish him,” said a report by Israel’s Channel 12.
With Netanyahu keen to milk political capital out of the meeting as the champion of Israel’s security, Gantz had no other option but to travel to Washington. However, Gantz insisted on meeting Trump separately in order not to play second fiddle to Netanyahu. He made it clear that he was going to meet Trump “as the leader of the largest party in Israel.”
Gantz: We Seek ‘A Basis for Progress’ with Palestinians
Unlike Netanyahu, Gantz maintained a reconciliatory tone in his speech after the meeting. In observing that the plan was likely to cause major and painful internal disagreements within Israel he said “I pledge to minimise those disagreements, but to work to make the framework a basis for progress towards an agreed deal with Palestinians and regional states.
It is worth noting that even though Gantz has always championed Israel’s right to exist, he has always been of the opinion that if Israel has to apply its sovereignty over the disputed territories, then it has to be done in a manner that is acceptable to the international community.
Netanyahu, on the hand, has always been ready to take unilateral step in applying Israel’s sovereignty, even if it means going against the international conventions. What matters most to him is the backing of the US. But with chances of Trump’s reelection looking increasingly slim, he has been pushed into further desperation to implement the plan by all means before US heads to the polls.
But this is being impeded by the fact that he is not in full control of the government. The coronavirus pandemic and the political stalemate that followed the hotly contested election, forced a coalition of convenience in which him and Gantz are strange bedfellows with conflicting views on the question of annexation.
How Does Gantz See the Situation?
In order not to go against the International community which is opposed to the annexation, and in order not to appear antagonistic against Netanyahu who is pushing for the annexation as soon as possible, Gantz has been sending mixed signals over the plan.
In the middle of last month Gantz in a meeting with defense officials said he wouldn’t back the annexation of areas with many Palestinian residents in order to avoid friction. He stressed the importance of working with Palestinians in any plan to apply sovereignty.
He made the remarks just days after holding a meeting with Netanyahu and US ambassador over the issue. It was reported that during the meeting the two leaders disagreed strongly over key details of the plan. While Netanyahu insisted on taking unilateral decision to map out the areas that were to be annexed, Gantz was pushed for the consultation of Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan before any action.
Gantz: ‘We Will Not Violate Human Rights’
On June 21, one week before the July 1 date set aside by Netanyahu for the cabinet debate on annexation, Gantz warned Palestinians that Israel would move forward without them if they continue rejecting dialogue. He however, added “We will not take Palestinians into our territory, we will not violate human rights or freedom of movement. We will not endanger any peace treaties.”
Some days later in a conversation with the US ambassador, Gantz said July 1 was not sacred for discussing the annexation of West Bank. According to him there were more important issues to be dealt with such as the coronavirus pandemic. “ What is not corona-related will wait until the day after the virus,” he said.
This effectively ruled out the possibility of holding the cabinet debate on the matter as planned by Netanyahu. This was despite Netanyahu telling members of his party that the cabinet debate did not depend on Gantz’s support.
Serious Setback for Netanyahu
With the two leaders pulling in opposite directions, the US has now decided to suspend talks on annexation of the West Bank, dealing Netanyahu a major blow. According to a report by Maariv, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said, “It was decided that the talks would not continue until the partners in the government reach mutual understanding.”
Meanwhile, according to Israel Hayom, Netanyahu told his party that if Gantz thwarts his plans, then he will not hesitate to instigate an early election. A new law passed following the formation of the coalition government early this year, gives Netanyahu the right to dissolve parliament in the first six months of the new government, and without passing the premiership to Gantz.
However Gantz remains unbowed and reiterated his stand recently by saying that although he sees the importance of applying Israel’s sovereignty over West Bank he believes that Israelis and Palestinians should co-exist peacefully.
“The issue of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria is important,” Gantz said. “But the right formula should be found to take us there.”