Is the Netanyahu-Gantz tension keeping annexation hostage?

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Being socially and professionally distanced.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz – a table apart. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz – a table apart.
This week began inauspiciously for our unity government, starting at the Sunday morning cabinet meeting.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz sat at the head of the cabinet table, socially distanced at 2 meters apart. Netanyahu made his remarks at the beginning of the meeting, mostly about fighting coronavirus and the related economic crisis, as Gantz looked on, wearing a mask.
When Netanyahu finished, he gave his usual signal for journalists to leave the room, in order for the cabinet meeting to really begin, saying “Media, thank you,” and he turned his head away from Gantz.
Gantz said he had planned to speak, but Netanyahu continued to look away, and his alternate was left angrily gesticulating and shaking his head at Prime Minister’s Office director-general Ronen Peretz, who then called the media back in so the alternate prime minister could say a few words.
It was a small but symbolic moment, all caught on camera, which portended the rest of the week’s events.
That night, a Channel 13 poll showed Blue and White dropping down to nine seats while the Likud got 38.
The next day “sources in Blue and White” said that Gantz told US Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz and Scott Leith of the US National Security Council, in Israel for the week, that “July 1 is not a sacred date” for extending Israel’s sovereignty in the West Bank.
“The only sacred thing at the moment is to bring people back to employment and take care of coronavirus,” Gantz said. “Before taking diplomatic steps, we have to help the citizens of Israel succeed in going back to work and earn a living with dignity.”
Several hours later, Gantz said in a Blue and White faction meeting that “anything unrelated to the battle against the coronavirus will wait.”
At about the same time, Netanyahu’s comments on sovereignty from the Likud faction meeting leaked: “The issue does not depend on Blue and White. They are not the relevant factor here.”
The tiff continued on Tuesday.
Ahead of a meeting with US Iran envoy Brian Hook, Netanyahu made a dig at Gantz, saying: “We have serious matters to discuss, so serious that they can’t wait until after coronavirus.”
Meanwhile, Gantz was telling Ynet that “a million unemployed people don’t know what we’re talking about right now,” in relation to sovereignty moves.
Diplomatic issues were far from the only ones generating friction between the Likud and Blue and White. Among the others that came up this week was Netanyahu releasing messages accusing Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit of “outrageous persecution” and having conflicts of interest, after which Blue and White MKs rushed to Mandelblit’s defense.
Gantz lamented to Ynet that “every day there is potential for the government to fall apart,” but at the same time, “from week to week we learn to work better together.”
MEANWHILE, THE “not a sacred date” of July 1, which the coalition agreement says is the earliest at which Netanyahu could bring sovereignty to a cabinet or Knesset vote, has come and gone without Israel making any moves to apply its laws to parts of the West Bank.
US President Donald Trump’s peace plan would allow Israel to apply its laws to 30% of the West Bank, including all settlements and the Jordan Valley, designating the other 70% for a Palestinian state. The Palestinians would then have up to four years to prepare for that state’s establishment, through demilitarization, stopping incitement and payments to terrorists, granting their citizens civil rights, and more, at which point they would get a massive aid package.
There are plenty of details that need to be finalized in the plan. The map of which parts of the West Bank would be Israeli and which would be Palestinian is a “conceptual map,” the exact contours of which are meant to be worked out by a joint US-Israel committee that has been working on it since February. There are Israeli “enclaves” in Palestinian territory and vice versa that would make the lives of those in these noncontiguous areas very difficult.
And then there’s the question of Palestinians in Israeli territory. The Trump plan says all Palestinians would remain under the Palestinian Authority, and Israelis would remain in Israel. But Israeli sovereignty over the entire Jordan Valley would make that impossible – even if Jericho would be left out. There would be Palestinians in Israel, and their status would have to be figured out.
Netanyahu wants to push for the full 30% that the Trump plan allows, and find solutions for those problems.
Gantz’s solution is to apply sovereignty to less territory. He made it fairly clear in a briefing to military reporters last week that he is for extending Israeli law to parts of the West Bank – just not how much or which parts. And on Friday, he said he does not want to merge any Palestinians into Israel.
From the get-go, Gantz was less enthusiastic about this move than Netanyahu was. He praised the Trump peace plan when he learned about it in Washington in January, and has continued calling it “historic” ever since. But he and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi have also always talked about moving forward with it “responsibly” and in cooperation with Israel’s neighbors, meaning they want to make sure the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan remain intact.
But until a few days ago, Gantz and Netanyahu were trying to agree on what the sovereignty map would look like, not whether there would be one at all.
This week, something changed. Gantz went from talking about the terms of sovereignty to postponing it indefinitely – because God only knows when the coronavirus crisis will end.
THE POLLS – in Israel and in the US – are at least one of the reasons for this change.
Gantz has dropped perilously low for someone who wants to be prime minister, and may be looking to win back some of the voters who left him – the voters who saw him and his party as the alternative to Netanyahu and the Likud. That means he needs to differentiate himself and show that he is blocking Netanyahu’s tendencies that his voters don’t like, whether on sovereignty or judicial matters.
Meanwhile, the polls in the US show Trump trailing far behind presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. A USA Today poll gave Biden a 12-point lead this week. Gantz could be concerned about going all in on the Trump plan when Democrats oppose it, since there seems to be a good chance Trump will be voted out of office.
Regardless of why Gantz’s attitude shifted in recent days, it’s unclear if his point of view will impact the final decision. Netanyahu wasn’t just being petty when he shrugged Blue and White off as irrelevant. As Gantz said to Ynet: “We set criteria in the [coalition] agreement. We set a process of discussion in the security cabinet and [general] cabinet, and after that Netanyahu can continue as he sees fit.”
In the political short term, Netanyahu does not need Gantz. Ever since Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel said he would vote in favor of sovereignty regardless of what Gantz decides, Netanyahu has had a certain majority in the cabinet, as well as the Knesset.
However, as US officials involved in the process have pointed out, if Netanyahu wants recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank to last past the Trump presidency – whether it ends in 2021 or 2025 – he would be better off making sure the move looks like a US-Israel agreement, with a relatively broad consensus, and not just a Likud-Republican agreement. Why should Biden be more bullish on Israel than Gantz?
A US source said that, contrary to what had been widely reported, bringing Gantz in is more of a suggestion, a piece of advice that came up in talks between the American and Israeli sides. If Gantz doesn’t buy into the sovereignty moves, it won’t be a deal-breaker for the Trump administration, which would still support Israel going along with its plan.
But at the same time, the source questioned the point of a unity government if its parts don’t work together.
Another American source expressed frustration at Gantz and Ashkenazi’s refusal to commit to a plan of action, saying they are still important factors.
But Netanyahu hasn’t committed to much, either. He has presented many maps to the American team and to Gantz and Ashkenazi. One, as reported by KAN, would solve the Israeli enclave problem by broadening the areas of Israeli sovereignty around them and making the parts of the West Bank that would be under Israeli sovereignty more contiguous. In order to maintain the 30%-70% proportion of Israeli and Palestinian parts of the West Bank, Israel would give up on unpopulated strips of land that were supposed to be under its sovereignty, including part of the Judean Desert.
But that’s not necessarily the one Netanyahu will go with in the end. He hasn’t told anyone that yet. Whether the Jordan Valley will be included in the end remains unknown. The timeline for these steps is still unclear, as well. There have not been any security cabinet meetings to discuss specific plans, either.
The tensions between Netanyahu and Gantz certainly haven’t helped move the Trump plan forward, but they’re unlikely to be a real impediment in the end. Aside from Trump needing to figure out where exactly he stands, Netanyahu hasn’t decided what exactly he wants the US president to approve, with or without Gantz. Once that happens, sovereignty plans will probably be able to move forward.•