JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s defense minister says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to begin annexing 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 pandemic.
“Anything unrelated to the battle against the coronavirus will wait,” he said.
Netanyahu has said he wants to begin annexing occupied land as soon as this week, in line with President Donald Trump’s Mideast plan. A top U.S. envoy is in the country trying to work out a deal with the Israelis.
Gantz’s announcement immediately complicated that mission and exposed a rift in the country’s new coalition government, which brings together Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Gantz’s Blue and White.
Earlier Monday, Netanyahu told Likud members that he was working “discretely” with the Americans. “The issue does not depend on Blue and White,” he said.
Earlier on Monday, the U.N.’s human rights chief said that Israel’s planned annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank would have “disastrous” consequences for the region.
The warning by Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, added to the growing chorus of international voices urging Israel not to annex territory.
The U.N. secretary-general, the European Union and key Arab countries have all spoken out against annexation, saying it would violate international law and all but destroy any remaining hopes of establishing a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“The precise consequences of annexation cannot be predicted,” Bachelet said in a statement issued by her office in Geneva. “But they are likely to be disastrous for the Palestinians, for Israel itself, and for the wider region.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry accused Bachelet of politicizing her office and noted that it froze ties with her office early this year due to what it called her “one-sided” attitude.
“It is not surprising that she decided today to join the Palestinian campaign against the American peace plan, and to publish declarations before any decision has been made,” the ministry said in a statement.
The Trump plan, unveiled in January, envisions leaving some 30% of the West Bank under permanent Israeli control, while granting the Palestinians autonomy in the remainder of the area.
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, for a fully independent state. Israel captured all three areas in the 1967 Mideast war, though it withdrew from Gaza in 2005, clearing the way for Hamas militants to seize control two years later.
Netanyahu, a strong supporter of Trump, has been unswayed by the international criticism. He says the supportive Trump presidency has provided a rare opportunity to redraw the Mideast map and annex Israel’s scores of settlements, as well as the strategic Jordan Valley. He has pledged to move forward as soon as July 1, seeking to take action well before the U.S. presidential election in November.
In a speech to evangelical Christian supporters of Israel late Sunday, Netanyahu said Trump’s plan “finally puts to rest the two-state illusion” and would “advance peace.”
“President Trump’s plan doesn’t really change the reality on the ground. It recognizes the reality on the ground,” he said.
Gantz has appeared to be more cautious. Both Netanyahu and Gantz have been meeting with White House envoy Avi Berkowitz and the U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman to work on a final map outlining which areas will be annexed. The talks were continuing after a series of meetings in Washington last week ended inconclusively.
The plan has also come under surprising criticism from West Bank settler leaders, who believe it does not go far enough and say that any plan that envisions even a watered-down Palestinian state must be opposed.
Israeli media have reported that Netanyahu is considering scaling back his plans and is expected to annex just a small number of settlements in a largely symbolic move.
But in her statement, Bachelet warned that even a small annexation would create a “highly combustible mix.”
She said deepening Israel’s control of West Bank land would likely harm Palestinian freedom of movement, turn Palestinian population centers into “enclaves” and clear the way for Israel to “illegally” expropriate Palestinian land.
“The shockwaves of annexation will last for decades, and will be extremely damaging to Israel, as well as to the Palestinians,” Bachelet warned. “However there is still time to reverse this decision.”
Dozens of Jewish legal scholars, meanwhile, sent a letter to the Israeli government urging Israel to drop the annexation plan.
The letter, sponsored by the Global Jewish Coalition, an umbrella group of liberal pro-Israel Jewish groups, said annexation would “fundamentally breach” international law and expose Israel to “new and grave dangers.”