Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said on Tuesday that he will seek to annex the Jordan Valley if elected prime minister, but would do so after the upcoming election and only in coordination with the international community.
Gantz also said that he now hoped US President Donald Trump’s peace plan would be published ahead of the election, despite having opposed such a step just two weeks ago.
Speaking during a tour of the region, the Blue and White leader described the Jordan Valley, which lies at the “eastern edge of the West Bank, as the State of Israel’s eastern defensive wall in any future scenario,” and said it was “an inseparable part of the State of Israel.”
Continued Gantz, “After the elections, we will work to apply [Israeli] sovereignty on the Jordan Valley. We will do this in a nationally agreed process and in coordination with the international community.”
The Blue and White leader said that until the region can be annexed, he would work to develop the Jordan Valley region, including its infrastructure and agriculture, its settlements and its tourism industry.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and several other right-wing leaders, immediately challenged Gantz to prove his commitment to what would be a highly controversial step, owing to the Palestinian expectation that the area would eventually be part of a Palestinian state, by calling on him to immediately implement the annexation through the Knesset.
“Benny, I expect your answer by this evening, unless [Joint List MK] Ahmad Tibi vetoes you,” quipped Netanyahu on Twitter, in reference to recent threats by Tibi to pull the support of the Joint List in the Knesset for Blue and White.
Netanyahu is now weighing bringing the matter of Jordan Valley annexation to the cabinet and the Knesset next week, even though there is an election cycle and he heads an interim government, according to a Likud source.
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit has previously frowned on such a move during the time of a transitional government.
On Monday, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich (Yamina) wrote to Netanyahu to ask if he would take such a step. He suggested that the vote could be held in conjunction with the anticipated immunity vote, expected to be held next week.
On Tuesday night, Yamina Party head and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett welcomed news that the matter could be moving forward.
“I am pleased that Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s initiative is gaining momentum,” said Bennett, adding that “I expected it will be brought up [for a vote] at the earliest opportunity.
“There is a narrow window of opportunity to apply sovereignty to the Jordan Valley,” Bennett said. “It’s a time for action and not words,” he said.
Later on Tuesday night at a Likud campaign rally, Netanyahu declared that he would annex the Jordan Valley, as well as every single settlement in the West Bank.
“We’ll apply Israeli sovereignty on the Jordan Valley and the Northern Dead Sea without delay and without any veto by [Joint List MK] Ahmad Tibi. It’s not just that we won’t uproot any settlements. It’s not just that we won’t evacuate anyone. We will apply Israeli law on all the settlements, all of it!” Netanyahu said.
He also continued to taunt Gantz over the positions of the more dovish members of his party, including Yael German of Blue and White’s Yesh Atid component – who said on Monday in an interview on Army Radio that Blue and White’s platform included a plan to withdraw from the West Bank not annex it.
“Today Benny Gantz toured the Jordan Valley and he finally said that he supports my initiative to apply Israeli sovereignty there,” continued Netanyahu, and accused Gantz of backtracking on his pledge when the Blue and White leader subsequently clarified that his promise to annex the region was only with international cooperation and not unilaterally.
“I was happy to hear Gantz’s comments, but then just a few hours later he backtracked. It appears he got a phone call from Tibi or Yael German,” jibed Netanyahu.
Gantz shot back at Netanyahu on Twitter, pointing out that the prime minister could immediately annex the Jordan Valley through a cabinet resolution without involving the Knesset, and said that Netanyahu had found excuses in the past not to do so.
“First we’ll deal with your immunity request in the Knesset and then with applying Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley,” he fired back.
There was considerable and strong opposition to Gantz’s pledge from the Israeli Left.
Joint List leader Ayman Odeh described Gantz’s pledge as “a pathetic attempt to gather a few votes on the Right,” and said that annexing the Jordan Valley would “destroy any chance democracy and peace.”
Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz said derisively in response to Gantz’s declaration that “Gantz is also an annexer,” adding “if this is the response to the hollow spin of the right-wing it shows a lack of self-confidence.”
Continued Horowitz, “And if this is truly his intent, to unilaterally annex 40 percent of the territories and destroy any chance of a [peace] agreement it shows a lack of logic. I don’t know what is worse. Either way it clearly shows that voters of the center-left have nothing to find with Blue and White.”
During his tour of the Jordan Valley, the Blue and White leader also seemed to do a U-turn on his opposition to the publication of the Trump peace plan during the current election campaign.
Asked about the possibility that the long-awaited plan would soon be published, Gantz said “I hope that [US] President Donald Trump will bring this forward and publish the plan,” adding “several weeks have gone past. In the Middle East a lot of dramatic things are happening, I expect the plan will be published.
Two weeks ago, Gantz said that publication of the plan would be “gross intervention in the election process of the State of Israel.”
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.