Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on Tuesday that Israel "won't keep waiting for the Palestinians" if they refuse to hold talks on the proposed annexation of parts of the West Bank, as part of U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East plan.
“We won’t get into the Palestinians' deep shit,” Gantz told a press briefing at the military's headquarters in Tel Aviv. “The Palestinians continue to reject dialogue and to remain in their ‘deep shit.’”
Gantz, who in the past publicly backed dialogue with the Palestinians toward an agreement leading to a two-state solution, said the Israeli government should “not only to manage the conflict but shape it as well.” And if the Palestinians choose not to hold talks with Israel about the annexation, “then we will have to move forward without them,” he said.
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Gantz said he would work to minimize the prospect of Israel becoming a binational Jewish-Arab country while at the same time working to safeguard Israel's security, in close consulation with the United States and other countries, as well as with the Palestinians, "to the extent that they wish to be part of the discussions."
Senior defense officials have expressed reservations about unilateral annexation. Israeli annexation of up to 30 percent of the West Bank is an element of the Trump administration's peace plan that was made public in January, which also calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Final maps of what that 30 per cent would include have not been finalized between Israel and the United States, but would encompass all of the Jewish settlements in the territory as well as the Jordan Valley.
Gantz has taken the approach that even if the annexation takes place, it won’t change anything on the ground or the routines of Palestinians or Israelis living in the West Bank. The advantage of annexation, as Gantz sees it, is mainly the prospect that it could break the diplomatic deadlock between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
“We will not take Palestinians into our territory. We will not violate human rights or freedom of movement. We will operate in coordination with all of the countries in the region with which we are in contact," Gantz said. "We will not endanger any peace treaties, and we will carry out an orderly process vis-a-vis the army, military officials and in terms of policy and the security cabinet. We are involved and are deeply exerting our influence on this issue," Gantz added.
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At the same time, the defense establishment continues to prepare for all possible anticipated scenarios in the event that Israel proceeds with annexation, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would begin to pursue as of July 1. At this point, four scenarios have been presented to the army by Israel's political leadership as options, but no practical discussions have been held on carrying out the annexation. Gantz said that he has reviewed the scenarios with the army.
Despite his position that there would not be any changes on the ground following an annexation, he said assessments include the possibility of an escalation on the security front following such a step. “The Judea and Samaria region poses a security challenge and the challenge may be larger as a result of applying sovereignty if and when it should happen,” the defense minister said, referring to the biblical names of the West Bank.
Speaking more cautiously with regard to the threats from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, Gantz said “the deterrence level is very high,” but the intensity of threat is even higher than in the past.
Gantz also addressed the issue of the defense budget and army chief Aviv Kochavi’s multiyear “Tnufa” plan, which is pending cabinet approval. The defense minister appeared inclined to understand the need to accept a cut in the defense budget. “We are in a difficult economic situation,” Gantz said.
No public stance on annexation
Israeli army officials have been avoiding taking a public stance on the annexation issue, but privately, senior officials have said that the main threat for which the army has had to prepare for the coming several years is from Israel's north. An escalation of the situation in the West Bank is liable to hinder preparations to address the threats to the north, they said, and could also require a diversion of considerable government funding.
Defense officials have also expressed concern about the consequences of a possible annexation of West Bank territory on relations with Jordan, Egypt, Qatar and other countries in the region that in recent years have been considered a restraining influence. In the rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza since March 2018, Egyptian and Qatari intervention brought about cease-fires in short order.
Israeli defense officials expressed concern that this approach, which they said was consistent with the interests of all sides, might be severely damaged by Israeli annexation moves.
Responding to Gantz's comments on Tuesday, the Israeli anti-occupation organization Peace Now made reference to Gantz's prior electoral campaigning in which he vowed to unseat Netanyahu. "After retreating from the promise to replace Netanyahu, Gantz has officially become his collaborator. The man who committed to bring peace has been enlisted to a project to set the Middle East on fire," the organization said.
"His support for unilateral annexation and his remarks about the day after and about Palestinian rejectionism conceals concern that the man is divorced from reality and is prepared to betray the will of his voters," Peace Now said in part.