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July 17, 2020 10:14 am

Israel’s Gantz Wants West Bank ‘Cultivation’ Now, Not Annexation

avatar by Reuters and Algemeiner Staff

Israeli Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Israel, June 7, 2020. Photo: Menahem Kahana / Pool via Reuters.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top coalition partner wants Israel to shelve West Bank annexation plans and instead focus on improving conditions for the territory’s residents, both Israeli and Palestinian, two cabinet ministers said on Friday.

Centrist ex-general Benny Gantz and the conservative Netanyahu had agreed to begin discussing annexation as of July 1, but the initiative — already dogged by diplomatic blowback — has been sidelined by a coronavirus resurgence.

Gantz says the health crisis should take precedence over any West Bank moves that may inflame the conflict with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu could go it alone in declaring Israeli sovereignty over West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley. But Gantz’s misgivings have complicated Israeli efforts to present a united front on annexation and how it might fit with US President Donald Trump’s plan for Middle East peace.

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While Gantz — whose popularity has plunged since he broke with an opposition alliance to join Netanyahu in March — has limited political clout, his role as defense minister also puts him directly in charge of civilian activities in the West Bank.

Alon Schuster, Israel‘s agriculture minister and a member of Gantz’s Blue and White party, said he was working to achieve “cultivation and not annexation, now” for West Bank farmers.

“We need to bring water to the Jordan Valley — for both the Israelis and the Palestinians who live there, by the way — and to improve electricity,” Schuster told Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM. “Why quarrel and waste time? … I hope we expend our national resources on this.”

Another Blue and White minister said this was also Gantz’s approach, and that the party leader believed working on West Bank infrastructure shared by Israeli settlers and Palestinians would “enable coexistence in accordance with the Trump plan.”

Asked to respond, Netanyahu’s office declined comment.

The Palestinians have rejected the Trump plan, which envisages them gaining statehood in 70% of the West Bank, as a non-starter. European powers worry unilateral Israeli territorial moves could kill off the long-moribund peace process.

Senior ministers from Netanyahu’s Likud party have urged annexation now. Some privately worry that Trump’s interest will wane as the US election in November nears, and that should he lose, that would close a window of opportunity for annexation.

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