Gantz says fighting coronavirus, unemployment higher priority than peace plan; Netanyahu still talking about sovereignty over all settlements and Jordan Valley.
By LAHAV HARKOV, TOVAH LAZAROFF, GIL HOFFMAN
Israel will not take steps to extend its sovereignty in the West Bank this week, multiple American sources with knowledge of the matter told The Jerusalem Post in recent days. US Special Envoy for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz and Scott Leith of the National Security Council are in Israel to hold meetings with senior Israeli officials.The coalition agreement between Likud and Blue and White allows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bring sovereignty moves to a vote on Wednesday, July 1, at the earliest. But plans and US approval of them will not be ready by then.In a meeting Monday morning, Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz told Berkowitz and Leith he does not see July 1 “as a holy date,” adding that fighting the coronavirus pandemic and bringing down unemployment are higher priorities for him. Gantz reiterated his position at a Blue and White faction meeting.Netanyahu, however, told Likud MKs in the Knesset he is conducting discrete talks with the American diplomatic team, and “This issue is not dependent on Blue and White. It is not the relevant authority here.”Berkowitz and Leith, the latter of whom is a member of the US-Israel mapping committee that is determining which parts of the West Bank will come under Israeli civil law, met with Netanyahu on Saturday night and plan to meet with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi on Tuesday.Even before the meeting with Gantz, they planned to return to the US without approving specific Israeli action after their meetings for further discussions with Special Adviser to the US President Jared Kushner. US President Donald Trump has not yet weighed in on the matter, as he is currently occupied with domestic issues such as the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing protests across the country, among other concerns.Though Israeli officials previously worked on the assumption that any expansion of sovereignty would have to take place this summer, which would mean that there would be time between the blowback and the US presidential election, Trump administration sources this week said the matter does not need to be dealt with urgently.AdvertisementEach of the three top Israeli officials meeting with Berkowitz and Leith has a different view on how Israel should proceed, ranging from applying Israeli sovereignty to 30% of the West Bank, including all settlements and the Jordan Valley, as the Trump plan stipulates, doing so in a smaller amount of territory, or not taking any such step at the moment and focusing on regional normalization.Netanyahu gave some indication of his thinking on the matter in a video address to Christians United for Israel (CUFI) on Sunday night, in which he said: “Israel will have sovereignty over Beit El, where Jacob dreamed of a ladder going to the heavens, and sovereignty over Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments stood for centuries.” Neither Shiloh nor Beit El are in the settlement blocs, indicating that the prime minister seeks to make a broader sovereignty move.Netanyahu also praised Trump’s peace plan for giving Israel “defensible borders, including the strategic Jordan Valley.”Gantz told the US team July 1 is not a deadline for him, and he is more focused on putting Israelis’ immediate needs first, especially COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis. Sources in Blue and White said Gantz thinks the Trump plan “is the right and best framework for promoting peace in the Middle East and should be promoted with strategic partners in the region and the Palestinians to reach an outline that will be good for all sides.”On Friday, Gantz pledged not to apply Israeli law to territory with large Palestinian population centers and offered equal rights for Palestinians in territory under Israeli sovereignty.The Trump administration’s “Vision for Peace” states that all Israeli areas would be part of Israel and Palestinian areas under Palestinian control. But Gantz stipulated in a Facebook post: “I won’t apply Israeli law in places where many Palestinians live or where their freedom of movement will be harmed. If there are Palestinian residents in areas where Israeli law will be applied, they will be given equal rights.”Some on the Right, especially in settler circles, have pointed at Ashkenazi as an obstacle to any sovereignty moves.Ashkenazi, however, is not inherently opposed to expanding Israeli sovereignty in some parts of the West Bank, a source close to the foreign minister said, and sees a major strategic value in continued Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley.However, Ashkenazi seeks to emphasize the peace aspect of the Trump vision more than the sovereignty part that Netanyahu has emphasized. He views the Trump plan as an opportunity to improve Israel’s standing in the region and separate from the Palestinians.Ashkenazi thinks Israel needs to enter talks with Jordan and Egypt and other countries in the region and attempt to coordinate with the Palestinians; only after entering cooperation on those fronts can Israel determine how much of the West Bank should be under its sovereignty.If that does not suit Netanyahu, the source said, Ashkenazi’s attitude is that the prime minister can try to bring sovereignty moves to a vote in the cabinet or Knesset and see if he gets a majority. Ashkenazi, however, is skeptical that Netanyahu will succeed without his and Gantz’s cooperation.US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman is the only one in the US government who wants to extend sovereignty, Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz said in his faction meeting.“No one understands the annexation obsession,” he said. “It’s a matter in which Friedman only represents himself.”Responding to a Meretz no-confidence motion that “the Israeli government is promoting annexation that will lead to apartheid,” Cyber and National Digital Matters Minister David Amsalem (Likud) accused the left-wing party of “stoking fear in the Israeli public” and not wanting to hear of any solutions other than withdrawal from the West Bank.Now is the time to extend sovereignty, he said, adding that “the stars have aligned, and this is a golden opportunity.”Despite Netanyahu’s comments at CUFI, Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked accused him of giving up on sovereignty over the Jordan Valley because of opposition from the Arab world.The sovereignty map included in Trump’s plan had been drawn up by Netanyahu, she told Army Radio, adding: “He worked for three years for this plan, and he can make changes to it as long as his coalition agrees.”Any Israeli West Bank annexation plan is illegal irrespective of whether it includes “30% of the West Bank or 5%,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet said Monday.Annexation is “likely to entrench, perpetuate and further heighten serious human-rights violations that have characterized the conflict for decades,” she said.The Foreign Ministry accused Bachelet of again politicizing her office to attack Israel, saying she spoke out of her own accord, thereby joining the Palestinian campaign against the US peace plan.Settler leaders continued their campaign in favor and against the Trump plan on Monday, and appeared unfazed by the idea that sovereignty would not occur on July 1.Efrat Council head Oded Revivi, who supports the plan, published a statement in its favor signed by 34 known settler figures, including seven other representatives of the 25-member Yesha Council as well as veteran settler leader and former Binyamin Regional Council head Pinhas Wallerstein.Strategic Affairs Minister Orrit Farkash Hakohen of the Blue and White party met with the Yesha Council on Monday. She then called for Netanyahu to convene a meeting of the security and diplomatic cabinet to start discussing the implications of the plan.Yesha Council CEO Yigal Dilmoni, who opposes the plan, said that the council’s focus has been on preventing the creation of a Palestinian state and any potential settlement freeze. Those dangers still exist, he said.Yesha Council head and Jordan Valley Regional Council head David Elhayani reissued his almost daily call for Netanyahu to immediately apply sovereignty irrespective of the US and the Trump plan.Netanyahu must choose between a sovereignty plan that is good for Israel or one that shores up Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Joint List MK Ahmed Tibi, the Yesha Council said, as it launched it newest campaign against the Trump plan.Settler leaders resurrected Netanyahu’s election campaign slogan, in which he had asked the voters to support a right-wing government under his leadership or a left-wing one that included Tibi.“Bibi or Tibi,” Netanyahu would say.Elhayani said, “We are saying to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the clearest way possible – go either in the way of Tibi’s way, Abu Mazen and the Left, or go in the way of full sovereignty on all the settlements.”Elhayani added that this sovereignty should not include support for a Palestinian state and or any settlement freeze.“I call on you [Netanyahu] to fulfill your promises,” Elhayani said.