Israel's Gantz says no annexation until after virus


Jerusalem (AFP)

Israeli defence minister and alternate premier Benny Gantz said Monday that any annexation of West Bank territory must wait until the coronavirus crisis has been contained.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government had set July 1 as the date from which it could initiate action on US President Donald Trump's Mideast controversial peace proposals.

The Trump plan paves the way for Israel to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, including Jewish settlements considered illegal under international law.

But with Israel still suffering hundreds of new COVID-19 infections a day and a rise of cases in the West Bank as well, Gantz told a televised meeting with members of his Blue and White party that other issues must take a backseat.

"Anything unrelated to the battle against the coronavirus will wait until the after the virus," he said. His office later clarified that he was referring specifically to the annexation plan.

Netanyahu's office was not immediately available to comment on whether the government had decided to delay action on annexation until after the health and economic crisis triggered by the pandemic had abated.

Under the terms of a coalition deal with Gantz, Netanyahu can initiate action on annexation either through the cabinet or through the Knesset (parliament).

In the cabinet, Gantz would have a veto, but a Knesset bill would only need a simple majority to pass. So if Netanyahu has the votes, Gantz can't stop it.

Annexation is just one part of 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 roundly rejected by the Palestinians.

Gantz's office said that he met Monday with Trump Mideast envoy Aviv Berkowitz and US Ambassador David Friedman "to discuss the American government's peace plan".

It did not divulge the content of the meeting.

Gantz fought Netanyahu tooth and nail in three inconclusive elections withing 12 months.

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

Gantz, a former army chief, is under the terms of the coalition deal due to take over as prime minister in November 2021, with Netanyahu serving as his alternate.