Peter Beaumont & Rosie Scammell
The Guardian / June 29, 2020
Alternate PM says planned 1 July date not ‘sacred’ and Israel should deal with Covid-19 crisis first.
Plans by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to begin annexing parts of the occupied Palestinian territories from as early as Wednesday appeared in disarray as the country’s alternate prime minister, Benny Gantz, suggested annexation would have to wait while the country dealt with its coronavirus crisis.
Gantz told a White House envoy, Avi Berkowitz – who is in Israel for talks on the issue – that a 1 July deadline was neither “sacred” nor urgent in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. Israeli media widely suggested that the timing could slip beyond Wednesday.
That prompted Netanyahu to tell a private meeting of his own Likud members that the issue “was not up to” Gantz’s Blue and White party and that “discreet” contacts with the US were continuing.
Gantz’s intervention comes on top of mounting international opposition to the move and reported cooling in the Trump administration over the push to annex imminently.
The emerging row follows reports of a meeting between Yossi Cohen, the head of the Mossad, and King Abdullah of Jordan suggesting that Israel may have scaled back plans to annex all of the Jordan Valley and up to 30% of the West Bank, in favour of the symbolic sovereignty over a handful of settlement blocks close to Jerusalem.
But both Jordan and the Palestinian leadership, backed by key EU countries and Gulf states, have made clear that they regard any move towards unilateral annexation as illegal, no matter how limited, with Jordan threatening to withdraw from or downgrade its 1994 peace treaty with Israel.
That view was echoed by the UN’s top human rights official, Michelle Bachelet, on Monday.
“Annexation is illegal. Period,” Bachelet said in a statement. “I am deeply concerned that even the most minimalist form of annexation would lead to increased violence and loss of life, as walls are erected, security forces deployed and the two populations brought into closer proximity.”
The UN secretary general, the EU and key Arab countries have all warned that annexation would violate international law and all but destroy any remaining hopes of establishing a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.
It also remained unclear whether a series of meetings of senior officials in the Trump administration last week had managed to bridge gaps, with Jared Kushner – Trump’s son-in-law and architect of the administration’s much-criticised “peace plan” – reportedly urging caution over the risk of damage to US ties in the Gulf and elsewhere.
In a rare op-ed in an Israeli newspaper, the Emirati ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, warned earlier in June that annexation of parts of the West Bank would jeopardise any warming of Arab-Israeli ties. Describing it as the “illegal seizure of Palestinian land”, Otaiba said: “Plans for annexation and talk of normalisation are a contradiction.”
Donald Trump’s peace plan, unveiled last January, envisions leaving a third of the West Bank under permanent Israeli control – granting the Palestinians autonomy in the remainder of the area. The proposal was comprehensively rejected by the Palestinians.
Unlike the Trump administration’s unilateral and controversial decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, the annexation debate has brought into play a multitude of competing considerations including whether an Israeli decision to annex would undercut the Trump administration’s own one-sided plan.
Within his own cabinet Netanyahu faces resistance both from Gantz and from the foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, complicating issues for the White House which has said it wants to see a unified Israeli front.
Instead Gantz has argued for an approach agreed with Israel’s partners in the region and with the Palestinians, “to arrive at an outline that benefits all sides in a responsible, proportional and reciprocal manner”.
A source in his party told local media that “Gantz made clear in the meeting that 1 July is not a sacred date” and expressed a desire for Israel to deal with the economic ravages of the coronavirus crisis.
Underlining the sense of uncertainty, pro-settler political figures accused Netanyahu of “giving up” on plans to annex the Jordan valley in favour of more-limited moves. Among them was the MP and former justice minister Ayelet Shaked who accused Netanyahu of preparing to abandon the plan.
However, other pro-settler figures have also voiced opposition to the annexation plan with David Elhayani, who chairs the Yesha Council representing settlers, describing it on Israel’s Army Radio this month as like being “offered cake at gunpoint”.
Speaking on Monday, Israel Gantz, the head of Binyamin regional council, which represents several dozen Jewish settlements in the West Bank, echoed the uncertainty.
“Today we are waiting for the prime minister. You all heard about the United States team and the Israeli team, but as far as I know they don’t have any agreements. So we are waiting to see,” he said.
He added he would be happy with any annexation, no matter how partial, but would campaign to extend it.
“Every bit of sovereignty here, we will be thankful, we will thank the prime minister and President Trump,” he said.
Peter Beaumont is a senior reporter on The Guardian’s Global Development desk
Rosie Scammell in Psagot