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Gantz accepts White House invite for separate meeting with Trump on peace deal

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz on Saturday said he had accepted a personal invitation from US President Donald Trump to meet with him privately in Washington on Monday on the administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan.

Gantz had been invited to Washington alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the peace plan, dubbed the “deal of the century,” which Trump has said he will likely release in the next few days. The two rival Israeli leaders were to have met Trump on Tuesday.

But Gantz — concerned he would be a minor player in such a meeting, but not wanting to say no to the president — said Saturday that he would instead meet with Trump separately on Monday “as the leader of the largest party in Israel.” Gantz is Netanyahu’s main political rival. Elections last April and September ended in deadlock between the rival blocs they head; further elections are to be held on March 2.

The meeting will be closed to the press, Gantz’s office said on Saturday.

Netanyahu’s office, in a statement issued immediately after Gantz announced his move, said the prime minister would also meet privately with Trump on Monday, in addition to the planned Tuesday meeting.

Appearing on live TV, Gantz said he has answered an invitation from Trump to meet with him privately and thanked him for the invitation.

“In coordination with the US administration, I accepted the personal, separate, respectful invitation from President Trump, and will meet with him personally on Monday, as the head of the biggest party in Israel. And I thank him for this important invitation.”

At the end of that White House meeting, he said, he would “return to Israel in order to lead, from up close, the discussions on removing Benjamin Netanyahu’s immunity.” Gantz was referring to the process, which is set to start in the Knesset on Tuesday, of weighing Netanyahu’s request for parliamentary protection from prosecution in the three graft cases for which he has been charged.

Gantz called Trump “a true friend to Israel, to Israelis, and to American Jews” and said that under his leadership “the alliance between Israel and the United States has grown stronger, deeper, and more significant than ever.”

Prior to Gantz’s announcement, Netanyahu released a short video in Hebrew in which he called the invitation to Washington a “historic moment” and an “opportunity that should not be missed.

Reports had swirled prior to Gantz’s announcement Saturday that the opposition party leader would opt out of the trip to Washington altogether, fearing it to be a “trap.” A Channel 12 report on Saturday citing sources close to Gantz said that he did not know what role he would have in the “performance” in Washington and that it wasn’t clear what his standing would be.

The report said Gantz was also unsure about how Trump would treat him in relation to Netanyahu, who has a long and friendly history with the US leader.

“In Blue and White, they fear it will be more political than diplomatic, and that Netanyahu is bringing Gantz to Washington, not to praise him, but to embarrass him, or diminish him,” the report said. Blue and White was also reluctant to publicly cooperate with rival Netanyahu, the TV report added, as the party’s main campaign focus has been on the need to remove the prime minister from office.

Gantz and Netanyahu were invited to the White House next Tuesday, the day the Knesset is set to vote on establishing the committee that will weigh the premier’s request to be protected from corruption charges in three criminal cases. Netanyahu is set to fly out on Sunday.

Blue and White Party leaders told Channel 12 Friday that they could not “on the one hand work to remove Netanyahu’s immunity [from prosecution] and his legitimacy, but at the same time participate in this together with him, giving him the status of a leader heading these major diplomatic moves.”

Earlier Saturday, Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman said the timing of Trump’s imminent release of his Israeli-Palestinian plan was “very suspicious” — implying it was being unveiled now to help boost Netanyahu’s chances in the March 2 election.

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.”

On Thursday, US Vice President Mike Pence confirmed that Netanyahu would visit the White House next week and said that Gantz was also invited, at Netanyahu’s urging.

Trump on Thursday said that he would likely release the plan before his meeting with Netanyahu and Gantz.

“It’s a great plan. It’s a plan that really would work,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One en route to a Republican Party meeting in Florida Thursday.

The plan is expected to strongly favor Israel, and is unlikely to garner any international support if it is seen as undermining the prospect of a two-state solution.

Trump said his administration has talked briefly to the Palestinians, who reject the administration’s peace plan before its release.

According to Channel 12, the peace plan is the most generous US proposal ever for Israel, likely providing for Israeli sovereignty over all West Bank settlements and sovereignty throughout Jerusalem. According to that TV report, which was unsourced, the plan also offers potential eventual recognition of Palestinian statehood, provided the Palestinians demilitarize Gaza and accept Israel as a Jewish state — conditions the Palestinians would presumably reject.

Header: Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz addressing press in Ramat Gan, on January 25, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)