Netanyahu indicates delay in annexation date after meeting with US envoys
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Tuesday with US Ambassador David Friedman and special Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz, a day ahead of his self-imposed date for beginning to annex West Bank lands under an American peace proposal, and indicated 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 shortly after wrapping up the talks, 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.”
Also in attendance were Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat and the bureau chief of the Prime Minister’s Office, Ronen Peretz, the PMO said in a statement.
The meeting comes as Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz continue to publicly spar over the timing of the annexation plans, with the premier dismissing Gantz’s assertion that it is too early to begin implementing them.
Gantz said Tuesday that Israel needs to move ahead on the Trump plan with “partners” from the region and international backing.
Earlier Tuesday, in a meeting with US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, Netanyahu appeared to mock comments Gantz made during a meeting with the US team on Sunday, 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, has agreed 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 the annexation on Gantz’s backing, in addition to support by Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.
Speaking in an interview with the Ynet news site Tuesday morning, Gantz said he believed that Israel had not yet gained the necessary diplomatic backing for implementing annexation plans, even as he defended his tacit support for such a move under certain conditions.
“I believe that the Trump plan is the right political and security framework to be promoted in the State of Israel,” Gantz said of the US administration’s plan, which envisions a Palestinian state in some 70 percent of the West Bank, with the rest being annexed by Israel.
But, he added, “this needs to be done correctly in bringing as many partners to this discussion from the countries of the region, with international backing. [We must] make every effort to connect with them and only then continue. And I think all the means to bring in the players have not yet been exhausted.”
The prospect of unilateral annexation has been condemned broadly on the international stage, with European and Arab states, as well as senior members of the US Democratic Party, warning the Israeli government against it.
Netanyahu, speaking on Monday evening, however, said Gantz’s Blue and White party was “not a factor” in the decision on annexation.
Responding to the claim Tuesday, Gantz said, “We have set criteria in the [coalition] agreement. We have established a process of discussion in the cabinet and the government and then Netanyahu may proceed as he wants.
“The government will have to make a decision and it will have to decide where it stands with this matter. If there is [a decision to apply] sovereignty tomorrow and the agreement allows it, I will have to respect the agreement,” he said, while declining to say whether he thought that there would be any decision on Wednesday.
“One million unemployed people don’t know what we’re talking about right now. Ninety-six percent are worried about what they’ll do tomorrow morning,” the Blue and White leader added, again stressing that most Israelis were concerned about the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and not interested in annexation.
Berkowitz’s trip to Israel comes 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.