- The Washington Times - Monday, June 29, 2020

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s July 1 target date for a major annexation of West Bank territory faced a new uncertainty Monday after Defense Minister Benny Gantz suggested the controversial move be delayed in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The proposed annexation has prompted widespread warnings from the Palestinians and the Arab world that it will inflame an already tense region, while the Trump administration — Mr. Netanyahu’s key ally — has sent mixed signals on the move.

Mr. Netanyahu showed no sign of backing off Monday, but several Israeli media outlets said Mr. Gantz, Mr. Netanyahu’s onetime political rival now serving as alternate prime minister, told U.S. officials in a private meeting to expect a delay.

Mr. Gantz, who does not support immediate annexation, also told a political gathering in Jerusalem on Monday that “anything that is not related to the coronavirus will wait” — presumably including the annexation that Palestinians fear will make it impossible for them to have a functioning independent state.

There was no immediate response Monday from the Trump administration, which has shown indecision toward the annexation push in recent weeks as U.S. Arab allies have warned that the move will prove divisive.



To win reelection back in March, Mr. Netanyahu promised his right-wing base that he would go forward with a major annexation of Israeli settlements on the contested land by July 1. But he was only able to form a government this spring by joining into an awkward power-sharing deal with Mr. Gantz, who heads the center-left Blue and White party.

Under their agreement, Mr. Netanyahu could bring annexation to a vote in Israeli parliament on Wednesday. But Mr. Gantz’s comments suggested such a move might become politically messy, particularly if the Israeli military is not on board.

There is also the issue of U.S. support. Analysts say Mr. Netanyahu won’t go ahead without explicit backing from Washington. The Trump administration appears divided, however, with envoy Avi Berkowitz in Jerusalem this week to engage in discussions on the contours of which land Israel can or cannot claim.

Adding to the difficulties Mr. Netanyahu faces, presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden opposes the annexation push.

The Trump administration had rolled out a new road map to Middle East peace early this year that said Washington was prepared to recognize permanent Israeli control over some 30% of the West Bank, while granting the Palestinians autonomy in the remainder of the area. The plan suggested Israel would have U.S. backing to absorb Jewish settlements across the West Bank, as well several fertile areas of the Jordan River valley near the border with Jordan.

Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and the Saudis have all come out firmly against any such annexation.

While Netanyahu supporters say the annexation will solidify Israel’s sovereignty and harden its security barrier against terrorism and Iranian aggression, critics say it will ruin any chance of a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace and undermine burgeoning ties Israel has built with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in recent years.

Several European nations are threatening sanctions against Israel if Mr. Netanyahu moves forward, and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned last week a unilateral annexation “would constitute a most serious violation of international law, grievously harm the prospect of a two-state solution and undercut the possibilities of a renewal of negotiations.”

U.S. officials, meanwhile, say they’d prefer an annexation plan that has broad political support in Israel, But analysts say Mr. Netanyahu is bent on proceeding as soon as possible, believing that President Trump will back him and that U.S. support could soon be lost if Mr. Trump does not win reelection.

Mr. Netanyahu appeared to dismiss Mr. Gantz’s concerns Monday, telling Likud members that he was working “discreetly” with the Americans. “The issue does not depend on Blue and White,” he said.

Under their power-sharing deal, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz hold mutual veto authority over most government decisions. But there’s an exception for annexation that could allow Mr. Netanyahu to introduce a proposal to the Cabinet or to the full parliament even without Mr. Gantz’s approval.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said Monday that annexation would have “disastrous” consequences for the region.

“The precise consequences of annexation cannot be predicted,” she said in a statement issued by her office in Geneva. “But they are likely to be disastrous for the Palestinians, for Israel itself, and for the wider region.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry accused Ms. Bachelet of politicizing her office and noted that it froze ties with her office early this year due to what it called her “one-sided” attitude.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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