Liberman: PM ‘running away’ to Washington to avoid actual action on annexation

Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman on Saturday accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “running away” to the US by traveling to Washington this coming week to discuss the Trump administration’s peace initiative.

Liberman claimed the premier was attempting to avoid his promise to annex the Jordan Valley to Israel, a move he asserted could be swiftly passed when the Knesset plenum convenes Tuesday.

Netanyahu, he said, was “running away to the US to avoid his promise to extend sovereignty over the Jordan Valley. He’s running away from his obligations. Instead of driving 2.5 kilometers to the Knesset he prefers to fly 9,500 kilometers to Washington.”

Speaking at a culture and politics event for residents in the city of Ra’anana, Liberman said a bid to annex the Jordan Valley “obviously has an absolute majority in the Knesset… We could pass it this Tuesday.” But he claimed Netanyahu’s initiative was “just a public relations stunt.”

Netanyahu in September vowed that if reelected he would immediately annex the Jordan Valley, a swath of land linking the West Bank to Jordan that Israel sees as a vital security asset, in what was widely seen in Israel as a bid to attract support from right-wing voters. In recent days he has once again floated the plan.

Netanyahu is traveling to Washington for the expected unveiling of the Trump administration’s long-delayed peace plan. But the timing of its reveal, which according to media reports is unprecedented in its concessions toward Israel, has led many politicians and commentators to say it appears to be an effort by the US leader to boost Netanyahu’s prospects ahead of the March 2 election.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz was also invited by the administration to attend, but according to unconfirmed reports he is planning to respectfully decline. Party officials were said by Channel 12 to fear the invitation was a “trap” and that he would be made part of a “performance” benefiting Netanyahu.

Liberman expressed skepticism as well, saying “To unveil such a plan five weeks before an election is very suspicious… the very timing of it will prevent any serious, in-depth discussion of the proposal.” And in a peace plan, he added, “every word and every lines counts.”

The trip will take place Tuesday, the White House has confirmed, the same day the Knesset is set to vote on establishing the committee that will weigh Netanyahu’s request to be protected from corruption charges in three criminal cases.

The Yisrael Beytenu leader said those discussions will move forward regardless of the prime minister’s travel plans.

“I am only following the prime minister’s wishes. It was he who asked for immunity, not someone else.”

Netanyahu has sought to prevent the House Committee from weighing his immunity request prior to the election, as under the makeup of the current Knesset it is all but assured of rejecting it. Liberman himself has vowed to vote it down.

Blue White reportedly asserted Thursday that the White House was trying to help Netanyahu delay the Knesset from deliberating his request for immunity from graft charges, by inviting him to Washington.

“When [Knesset Speaker] Yuli Edelstein declared the deliberation will take place Tuesday,” a Blue and White source told the Haaretz daily, “we estimated he did so with the knowledge that Netanyahu and Benny Gantz would be invited to Washington on the same day.”

Speaking at a Beersheba event Saturday, Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar said Netanyahu “should stay for the immunity discussions. We won’t stop or delay them even for an hour” over the prime minister’s US trip.

Speaking in Hadera, Labor-Meretz-Gesher alliance chief Amir Peretz said: “There’s no sense in [debuting] a peace plan a month before elections. Netanyahu and Gantz have no legitimacy to carry out a diplomatic plan at the moment.”

Meanwhile in Ness Ziona, Labor-Gesher-Meretz MK Ilan Gilon said Trump’s invite to Netanyahu was “an alliance between two men mired in corruption cases, throwing each other lifelines. The deal under offer, as outlined in the media, is bad by any measure and destined to fail.”

Under the terms of the soon-to-be released plan, Israel would retain overall security control of the entire West Bank even if a Palestinian state is established in parts of it, Israeli TV reports said Friday night.

Channel 13 said it would ultimately provide for a demilitarized Palestinian state in some 80 percent of the West Bank, under overall Israeli control. That state would not be empowered to maintain an army and sign military treaties, and Israel would control its borders, further reports on Friday said.

The Channel 13 report said the US expects the Palestinians to reject the plan, but would encourage them to think again, and would say that the 80% of West Bank territory intended for their state would be kept for them for several years.

The various Israeli reports on the plan to date have made no mention of the intended fate of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Israeli reports have described the deal as the “most pro-Israel plan ever presented” by a US administration.

In the Clinton era, prime minister Ehud Barak offered to relinquish over 90% of the West Bank to the Palestinians; in 2008, prime minister Ehud Olmert offered what amounted to 100% of the West Bank with one-for-one land swaps, a capital in East Jerusalem, and the Old City under international control.

Based on what it said were briefings given by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman to various Israeli politicians in recent days, the Channel 13 report also said the Jordan Valley will be defined in the plan as Israel’s eastern security border. If Israel wants to annex that area, however, it would have to give the Palestinians territory in return in the Negev close to the Gaza Strip.

Elaborating on a Channel 12 report Thursday, the Channel 13 item said Israel would annex all 100-plus settlements, but that minor settlements among them would not expand further; building there would be frozen. Dozens of illegal outposts would be evacuated.

Again echoing Thursday’s report, Channel 13 said Israel would be sovereign in Jerusalem — though it added that several Arab neighborhoods formally inside Jerusalem that are located on the West Bank side of the security barrier would go to the Palestinians.

Israel would be sovereign at the Temple Mount and other Old City holy sites, but the Palestinians would have a role in their administration, it said.

Quoting sources in Gantz’s Blue and White party, Channel 13 reported that Israel would not be allowed to start annexing West Bank settlements and other areas unless it accepted the full plan. Channel 12, however, claimed that if Israel accepts the plan and the Palestinians reject it, Israel would have US support to begin annexing settlements unilaterally.

The Palestinian Authority has preemptively rejected the plan, and is reportedly threatening to cancel its security coordination with Israel in the West Bank if it moves ahead. The PA has had no substantive dealings with the US administration since Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017.

The US is seeking to encourage allied Arab foreign ministers to attend Tuesday’s White House meeting, thus far to no avail, Channel 12 said.

Netanyahu is reportedly hoping to use the US initiative to deflect attention from his legal troubles and the drama that is set to take place at the Knesset this week.

The premier has been charged with fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases and bribery in one of them but has painted the accusations as part of a witch hunt by the media and the left.

Liberman on Saturday cited an oft-repeated Netanyahu quote from 2008 regarding then-prime minister Ehud Olmert’s offers to the Palestinians, while he was accused — and later convicted and jailed — in his own corruption cases.

Netanyahu said then that “a prime minister who is neck-deep in investigations has no public or moral mandate to make crucial decisions… the right thing to do is for the government to go home.”

Liberman said: “I would expect him to do what he expected Olmert to do. But just like his promise to pass [legislation for] Israeli sovereignty in the Jordan Valley and just like he said he wouldn’t concern himself with immunity [but did] — the conduct here will be the same.”

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