Gantz to Meet Trump on Peace Plan, but Alone, Not With Netanyahu

Gantz to Meet Trump on Peace Plan, but Alone, Not With Netanyahu

RAMAT GAN, Israel — Benny Gantz, the former Israeli military chief making a third attempt to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Saturday that he would visit President Trump on his own in Washington on Monday to discuss a White House proposal for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Calling himself “the president’s full and committed partner,” Mr. Gantz pointedly said, in English, that he would be meeting with Mr. Trump “as the leader of the largest party in Israel,” the centrist Blue and White faction.

Mr. Gantz also gave measured praise to Mr. Trump’s proposal, about which he said he had already been told a good deal by administration officials.

The surprise announcement means Mr. Gantz will avoid an awkward three-way meeting with Mr. Trump that Mr. Netanyahu had sought to orchestrate at the White House on Tuesday, five weeks before Israel’s March 2 election, the third ballot in a year. The first two ended in deadlock.

Crucially, it also means Mr. Gantz will be able to fly back to Israel in time to oversee a key proceeding Tuesday regarding Mr. Netanyahu’s attempt to obtain parliamentary immunity from prosecution on serious corruption charges. Lawmakers are expected to reject the request, with Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, vowing to boycott Tuesday’s debate in protest, but if Mr. Gantz were in Washington, that likely would have been delayed.

In effect, Mr. Gantz, who had seemingly been cornered by the White House invitation, found an unseen exit, allowing him to avoid aiding Mr. Netanyahu without offending Israel’s closest and most powerful ally.

“Following this important meeting, I will return to Israel in order to lead the debates regarding Netanyahu’s immunity from up close,” Mr. Gantz said in Hebrew, in an announcement that was carried live by Israeli television.

“These are not regular days for the state of Israel,” he added.

A meeting of the American president and Israeli prime minister with Mr. Gantz, who is merely a member of Parliament, could have embarrassed him in the eyes of Israelis. Mr. Netanyahu could have put him on the spot before the cameras by cajoling Mr. Gantz to join a unity government after the March 2 election. It would have meant communicating in English, in which Mr. Netanyahu is peerless among Israeli politicians and Mr. Gantz is much less comfortable.

Mr. Gantz, who is tacking to the right in his campaign this time, was full of praise for Mr. Trump, calling him “a true friend of the state of Israel, the citizens of Israel and the Jews of the United States,” and saying his leadership “has made the alliance between us deeper, stronger and more powerful than ever.”

While couched in laudatory terms, Mr. Gantz’s remarks about the Trump administration’s proposal for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, about which he said he had been amply briefed, was full of subtle caveats, and referred to its potential rather than to the probability or certainty of its success.

He said the proposal could be “a basis for progress” toward “an agreed-to arrangement” with the Palestinians, “in tandem with continued and deeper strategic partnership with Jordan, Egypt and other countries in the region.”

He said the plan would go down in history “as a significant milestone that defines the path down which the various parties to the conflict in the Middle East can walk to a regional and historic agreement.” But he did not indicate how much farther that path might lead.

The Israeli news media has been full of leaks of supposed details of the plan, saying it would pave the way for annexation of significant portions of the West Bank including all but a small number of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. The Palestinians insist it will be dead on arrival.

Many analysts and supporters of a two-state solution to the conflict have called the promised rollout of the plan this week a distraction from Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial and an attempt by Mr. Netanyahu to shift the election campaign from a referendum on him to a discussion of what he calls a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to expand Israeli territory.

Regardless, the White House invitation, delivered by Vice President Mike Pence in Jerusalem on Thursday, had put Mr. Gantz in a bind.

Aides said it would be difficult and politically costly to turn down a presidential summons. Weighing against that, they said, was a belief that the invitation was a trap, laid by Mr. Netanyahu with the cooperation of his allies in the Trump administration.

Before Mr. Gantz’s announcement, a few activists outside shouted pleas for him to spurn the president’s call to Washington.

“Bibi laid a honey trap for him,” said Shai Erel, 61, a contractor. “He mustn’t fly as Netanyahu’s plus-one and be the escort of a not-yet-elected prime minister.”

But a separate meeting on Monday is not risk-free for Mr. Gantz. A career military man, he only entered politics a year ago and has yet to face an English-language press corps or a stage anything like that of the White House.

And aides to Mr. Netanyahu signaled they would seek to magnify the contrast, with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reporting after Mr. Gantz’s remarks that Mr. Netanyahu now planned to hold an additional meeting of his own with Mr. Trump on Monday, denying Mr. Gantz a news cycle to himself.

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