Ashkenazi says normalization replaced annexation, sparks coalition row

THe UAE-Israel deal “is a very strong demonstration that only through dialogue and negotiation can we make progress," Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi speaks at a press conference (Credit: Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi's spokesperson)
Government policy has changed from annexation to normalization, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi told reporters in Berlin on Thursday. His remarks created an immediate political storm within the fragile coalition.
“It is very clear and very tangible that Israeli governmental policy moved from annexation to normalization,” he said during a joint press conference with his Germany counterpart, Heiko Maas. “That is an opening. That is real. That is concrete.”
His comments were intended to assuage European Union fears about annexation and help ease tensions and repair ties with European countries, including Germany, which had warned against sovereignty moves.
Ashkenazi’s remarks came in the aftermath of the historic announcement of a burgeoning US-brokered agreement to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates in exchange for the suspension of plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to annex West Bank settlements.
But within hours after Ashkenazi (Blue and White) said normalization had replaced annexation, Likud sources attempted to weaken his diplomatic power while he was still in Germany. They said he was not authorized to represent the State of Israel on this matter, even though he is the foreign minister.
Ashkenazi’s words were “ridiculous,” and “the government is paralyzed,” Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, one Netanyahu’s closest confidants, told Channel 13.
The government was working to both strengthen its hold in Judea and Samaria and to seek peace, he said. Blue and White was acting as if it was an “opposition” force from within the government, he added.
On Thursday, cabinet ministers received a message that their weekly meeting had been canceled for the fourth week in a row. The reason given was that important diplomatic meetings had been set for Sunday.
The cabinet has not met the past three weeks due to disputes that have not been resolved over how the government should function and how to pass the budget.
Thursday’s battle over Ashkenazi’s words was just the latest in that crisis.
“Gabi Ashkenazi knew nothing about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s historic peace agreement with the Emirates, so his remarks are irrelevant,” a Likud source said.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu has worked for many years to bring about this historic peace agreement, and other peace agreements that are on the way, under the principle of peace for peace and not territories for peace,” which the Left advocated in the past, the source said.
It was “ridiculous” that Ashkenazi and others in his party were trying to rob Netanyahu of credit for the deal and the unprecedented benefits that Israel has reaped as a result, the source said.
In response, a Blue and White source said the Likud should stop being so “sour” and instead welcome normalization and the manner in which “peace and security” had replaced “irresponsible unilateral measures.”
The battle underscored the deep philosophical division between the two parties, which earlier this week narrowly averted leading the country to a fourth election.
Annexation was still on the agenda, Netanyahu has said, and normalization with Arab countries was based on “peace for peace.”
The United States has reiterated that the UAE deal has “suspended” annexation and has not given a timeline for when it can be executed.
Ashkenazi and Alternative Prime Minister Benny Gantz have long opposed unilateral annexation and would prefer to see settlements become part of Israel through consensus with the Palestinians and the Arab world.
Some settlers have feared that normalization means the end to any such hope that settlements would be annexed to Israel and fear that the concept of a two-state solution at the pre-1967 lines has been revived.
Upon hearing Ashkenazi say that “annexation is out, peace is in,” Peace Now said it is embarrassing how hard the Likud works to hide what is clear to everyone – that Israel has forsaken annexation for peace.
While in Berlin, Ashkenazi appealed to the Palestinians to negotiate.
“I would like to say we are still keeping the door open for the Palestinians,” he said. “We hope the Palestinians will join the table to negotiate the process... Now it is up to [them].”
The UAE-Israel deal “is a very strong demonstration that only through dialogue and negotiation can we make progress,” Ashkenazi said, adding that he hoped other Arab countries would also normalize ties.
In their comments, Ashkenazi and Maas alluded to the fact that Israel’s suspension of annexation had already opened renewed possibilities for Israel in Europe.
During Ashkenazi’s two-day trip to Germany, his first abroad since becoming foreign minister in May, he attended an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers. It is unusual for a high-level Israeli official to participate in such a meeting.
Germany, which holds the rotating six-month European Council presidency through the end of December, extended the invitation.
The last time it happened was in 2017, when Netanyahu joined an informal breakfast gathering of EU foreign ministers.
Ashkenazi’s presence marked a break in the otherwise tense relations between Israel and the EU, which are divided on issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran.
“We have to maintain an open and honest dialogue with Europe,” Ashkenazi said, adding that he hoped his trip would be the start of that new conversation.
“Many things had become easier” now that Israel had suspended its annexation plans, Maas said.
Both Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were the subject of Ashkenazi’s conversations with Maas, the EU foreign ministers and High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell.
“The EU and Israel are ready to continue to work together,” Borrell tweeted after their meeting.
But in their public remarks, both Ashkenazi and Maas glossed over those differences.
Regarding Tehran, Ashkenazi said: “Iran repeatedly used terror activities and armed regional militias, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Houthis in Yemen, Palestinian terrorists in Gaza. It is really undermining the stability in the region.”
Maas said he shares Israel’s concerns about Iran, particularly its access to sophisticated weapons.
Germany believes Iran is best held in check through the 2015 Iran deal, while Israel maintains that it must be replaced with international sanctions.
“We do share an intimate, special relationship, Germany and Israel,” Ashkenazi said.
He thanked Maas for his commitment to preserving both the memory of the Holocaust and to the security of the modern State of Israel.