Israeli defence chief Gantz says West Bank annexation 'will wait'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he wants to begin annexing occupied land as soon as this week.

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Israel's defence minister says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to begin annexing occupied West Bank territory will have to wait due to the country's coronavirus crisis.

Benny Gantz, who also holds the title of alternative prime minister, told his Blue and White Party on Monday that his top priority is helping the country navigate the health and economic crisis stemming from the coronavirus.

"Anything unrelated to the battle against the coronavirus will wait," he said.

Mr Netanyahu has said he wants to begin annexing occupied land as soon as this week.

Israel's longest-serving premier was quoted by a spokesman as telling legislators from his right-wing Likud party that annexation steps due to be debated by the cabinet as early as Wednesday did not depend on Mr Gantz's support.

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 a green light to 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.

Mr Netanyahu has said he intends to extend Israeli sovereignty to Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley, as envisaged by a blueprint announced by US President Donald Trump in January under which Israel would control of 30 per cent of the occupied West Bank.

International opposition has mounted in the past few weeks, with Palestinian leaders, the United Nations, European powers and Arab countries allied with Israel all denouncing any annexation of land that Israeli forces captured in a Arab-Israeli war.

The United Nations' 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 Ms Bachelet of bias and said in a statement that it was not surprising that she had made her remarks before "any decision has been made".

The Trump proposal - rejected outright by Palestinian leaders - also envisages creation of a Palestinian state, under strict conditions.