By ARON HELLER
Updated: January 25, 2020 02:01 PM
Created: January 25, 2020 01:47 PM
JERUSALEM (AP) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's chief political rival confirmed Saturday he has accepted President Donald Trump's invitation to Washington, and will meet the president before the unveiling of the administration's long-awaited peace plan.
Benny Gantz was initially inclined to accept the joint invitation that Vice President Mike Pence extended to both him and Netanyahu two days ago in Jerusalem. Given the upcoming Israeli election on March 2, and the desire to present a united front to what is expected to be a favorable plan for Israel, Netanyahu said he suggested including Gantz at the summit.
But over the weekend, Gantz's camp began leaking that he would likely decline, fearing that Netanyahu was using the meeting as an electoral ploy to upstage Gantz in Washington and re-focus the campaign away from his indictment on corruption charges.
The two leaders remain deadlocked after two inconclusive elections in 2019 and are engaged in another heated campaign.
In weekend consultations with his advisers, Gantz appears to have found a compromise he could live with. He'll meet with Trump privately on Monday and then return to Israel immediately to lead the parliamentary hearing on Tuesday seeking to reject Netanyahu's plea for immunity from Israeli lawmakers.
"The peace plan devised by President Trump will go down in history as a meaningful landmark mapping the way for the different players in the Middle East to finally move forward toward an historic and regional agreement," Gantz said in a live TV address. "These are fateful times, both for Israel's border and character as well as its democratic fabric. Therefore, I have decided to accept the invitation extended to me by President Trump and meet with him in person this Monday as the leader of the largest party in Israel."
The plan, which would be rolled out as Trump's Senate impeachment trial continues on Capitol Hill, is expected to be extremely favorable to Israel and offer it control over large parts of the West Bank. The Palestinians seek the entire territory, which was captured by Israel in 1967, as the heartland of a future independent state and have preemptively rejected the Trump peace plan. Most of the international community supports the Palestinian position.
Netanyahu has said he plans to annex the Jordan Valley as well as Jewish settlements across the West Bank, which would all but extinguish any possibility of creating a viable Palestinian state.
A campaign focused on diplomacy, Netanyahu's forte, would serve the prime minister well among his hawkish base and distract from his murky legal situation. Shortly before Gantz spoke, Netanyahu issued a statement lauding Trump and saying "an opportunity such as this comes once in history and cannot be missed."
After announcing he would meet Trump, Gantz reiterated his critique of Netanyahu.
"To promote the 'deal of the century' we need to be united under a prime minister who has public legitimacy to implement it," he said, adding that one under indictment could not be trusted to do so.
(Copyright 2020 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)