Israel annexation plans remain unknown day before deadline

Benjamin Netanyahu faces opposition from within Israel’s coalition government

Palestinians rally against Israel's West Bank annexation plans, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on June 29, 2020. / AFP / SAID KHATIB
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Israel's alternate prime minister has said West Bank annexations must wait, allies and regional powers have condemned the project, but hours before his government can move forward, Benjamin Netanyahu's plans remained unknown on Tuesday.

The Israeli prime minister has endorsed a US-proposed peace plan that paves the way for Israel to annex territory in the occupied West Bank, including settlements considered illegal under international law.

His coalition government has set July 1 as the date it can begin action on US President Donald Trump's proposals, which have been roundly rejected by the Palestinians as biased towards Israel.

European powers including Britain, France and Germany as well as the UN are opposed to any unilateral West Bank annexations as a breach of international law would undermine a two-state solution to the conflict.

On Monday, Mr Netanyahu's chief coalition partner, the defence minister and alternate prime minister, Benny Gantz, said annexation must be put on hold until the coronavirus crisis has been contained.

The two uneasy partners in a coalition formed last month were both meeting visiting officials from Washington, which wants to see consensus within the Israeli government before giving its support to Mr Netanyahu's plans.

A Netanyahu-Gantz rift might therefore delay a Cabinet debate on annexation that both had agreed could begin as early as July 1.

But under the terms of a coalition deal with Mr Gantz, Mr Netanyahu can initiate action on annexation either through the cabinet or through the Knesset.

In the Cabinet, Mr Gantz would have a veto, but a Knesset bill would only need a simple majority to pass. So if Mr Netanyahu has the votes, Mr Gantz cannot stop it.

Annexation is only one part of Mr Trump's plan, which also calls for the creation of a demilitarised Palestinian state, largely encircled by Israel, with a capital outside of Jerusalem - terms rejected by the Palestinians.

Mr Gantz's office said that he met Monday with Mr Trump’s Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman "to discuss the American government's peace plan".

It did not divulge the content of the meeting.

Mr Gantz fought Mr Netanyahu tooth and nail in three inconclusive elections in the past 12 months.

The rivals eventually agreed on an unwieldy centre-right coalition with each man holding equal status and bearing the newly created title of alternate prime minister.

Mr Gantz, a former army chief, is due to take over as prime minister in November 2021, with Mr Netanyahu serving as his alternate.

The UN's top human rights official, Michelle Bachelet, urged Israel on Monday to scrap its plans entirely, saying: "Annexation is illegal. Period."

The Israeli foreign ministry accused Bachelet of bias and said it was not surprising that she had made her remarks before "any decision has been made".

The Palestinians claim all of the occupied West Bank, along with occupied East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, for a fully independent state. Israel captured all three areas in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, though it withdrew from Gaza in 2005, clearing the way for Hamas to seize control two years later.

Mr Netanyahu has been unswayed by the international criticism. He says the supportive Trump administration has provided a rare opportunity to redraw the Middle East map and annex Israel's scores of settlements, as well as the Jordan Valley.

In a speech to evangelical Christian supporters of Israel late on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu said Mr Trump's plan "finally puts to rest the two-state illusion" and would "advance peace".