Benjamin Netanyahu's main election rival sidesteps Palestinian statehood

'I will talk to anyone I can in order to advance a diplomatic solution,' Benny Gantz said

Retired Israeli general Benny Gantz, one of the leaders of the Blue and White political alliance. AFP
Retired Israeli general Benny Gantz, one of the leaders of the Blue and White political alliance. AFP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's strongest election rival, former army general Benny Gantz, said he would seek peace with the Palestinians but stopped short of endorsing their goal of statehood.

Mr Gantz, who twice led Israeli military invasions of Gaza and is now a centrist candidate, said in an interview on Tuesday with Hadashot TV news that Israel has a moral obligation to "strive for peace."

"I will talk to anyone I can in order to advance a diplomatic solution," Mr Gantz said.

When asked whether the ultimate goal would be that of a Palestinian state, Mr Gantz did not give a definitive answer although he did suggest that eventually, Israel should separate from the Palestinians.

"At the end of the road there is a Jewish, democratic, safe and strong state with a solid Jewish majority and what happens on the other side would be an outcome of what happens at negotiations."

Palestinians want to establish a state in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, territories that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. The last round of peace talks between the sides broke down in 2014.

The US is widely expected to unveil a new peace proposal after the April 9 Israeli election. The Trump administration has wavered over whether it would endorse a Palestinian state, saying the final outcome will be up to the sides to determine, but both sides will have to compromise. The president’s son in law, Jared Kushner, is believed to be leading push.

Quoting sources, a newly released book by Vanity Fair journalist Vicky Ward called ‘Kushner, Inc’ alleges that under Mr Kushner’s proposal, Jordan would give land for a Palestinian state in exchange for Saudi Arabia transferring land to Jordan. The fledgeling Palestinian state would also rely on large-scale Gulf financial assistance. The book did not say if the land shuffle was still a component of Mr Kushner’s long-delayed plan.

However, after the reports from the book became public, US special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, tweeted said that "no one who has seen the plan would spread misinformation like that".

“Whoever made these claims has bad info,” he added. “Next time feel free to reach out to us before you run with a story. A lot of people are sharing false info with the press now for bad reasons.”

The Palestinians have boycotted the Trump administration since it announced it recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital and opened a new US embassy there last year. Washington has also cut hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to the Palestinians.

Mr Gantz's Blue and White party has slipped in opinion polls recently, although it still has a slight lead over Mr Netanyahu's Likud in most surveys. However, Mr Netanyahu still appears likely to win the most support from allied parties, allowing him to form a coalition of right-wing and religious factions similar to one he now heads.

After the attorney-general announced on February 28 he plans to indict Mr Netanyahu in three corruption cases, Mr Gantz ruled out joining a Netanyahu government.

But in leaked recordings aired on Israeli Reshet News on Monday, Mr Gantz said that things could change if Mr Trump's peace plan is put forward.

In Tuesday's interview, he said he would not join a Netanyahu government if charges are indeed filed against the prime minister.

Mr Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, will have the chance to persuade the attorney-general to scrap the charges at a hearing expected after the election.

Meanwhile, two Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in clashes near a flashpoint religious site in the occupied West Bank overnight on Wednesday, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.

The ministry said Raid Hamdan, 21, and Zaid Nouri, 20, died after being shot late on Tuesday by Israeli troops near the Joseph's Tomb religious site close to the Palestinian city of Nablus.

The Israeli army said in a statement, explosives were hurled from a vehicle as Jewish worshippers visited the site on Tuesday.

"Troops responded with live fire towards the vehicle."

There were no reports of injuries on the Israeli side.

The site has long been a source of tension in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Jews believe the site contains the remains of the biblical patriarch Joseph, one of the 12 sons of Jacob.

Palestinian Muslims believe an Islamic cleric, Sheikh Yusser [Joseph] Dweikat, was buried there two centuries ago.

It is located near a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank, the territory occupied by Israel for more than 50 years.

The Israeli army regularly escorts groups of Jewish pilgrims to the site, often sparking clashes.

Separately, Israel demolished more homes in the occupied West Bank city of Yatta, near Hebron. Tel Aviv regularly orders the demolition of homes and buildings in West Bank areas under Israeli security control that do not have permits for construction despite the fact that they are rarely if ever issued.

Updated: March 20, 2019 08:18 PM


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