Israel's Gantz tells army to prep for annexing West Bank

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's defense minister urged the military on Monday to hasten preparations for the country's planned annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, in apparent anticipation of what could be fierce Palestinian protests against the move.

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The statement by Benny Gantz came as Israeli media reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed annexation on Monday in a call with Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's senior adviser who stands behind a White House Mideast plan that largely favors Israel.

In a statement sent by his office, Gantz appeared to command the military to prepare for the fallout from annexation, asking the military chief of staff to “speed up the (military’s) preparedness ahead of political steps on the agenda in the Palestinian sphere.” The statement gave no further details.

Gantz also serves as “alternate” prime minister until he is expected to replace Netanyahu late next year, under a power-sharing agreement that ended more than a year of political turmoil.

Beyond the protests that any step toward annexation could spark, the move also risks unraveling burgeoning Israeli ties with Gulf Arab states.

One of those countries, the United Arab Emirates, called on Israel Monday to halt its plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank — joining a long list of Arab nations that have condemned the expected Israeli move.

The UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said on Twitter Monday that annexing lands sought by the Palestinians would harm the chances for regional peace.

“Any unilateral Israeli move will be a serious setback for the peace process,” he wrote on Twitter.

He added that annexation would “constitute a rejection of the international & Arab consensus towards stability & peace."

Netanyahu has announced that he will annex parts of the West Bank, including the strategic Jordan Valley and dozens of Jewish settlements, in line with Trump's Mideast plan. He has signaled he will begin moving forward with annexation next month.

The U.S. plan envisions leaving about one third of the West Bank, which Israel captured in 1967, under permanent Israeli control, while granting the Palestinians expanded autonomy in the remainder of the territory. The Palestinians, who seek all of the West Bank as part of an independent state, have rejected the plan, saying it unfairly favors Israel.

The annexation plan has come under harsh criticism from some of Israel's closest allies, who say that unilaterally redrawing the Mideast map would destroy any lingering hopes for establishing a Palestinian state and reaching a two-state peace agreement.

The UAE is among a group of Gulf Arab countries that does not have official diplomatic relations with Israel, but maintains close behind-the-scenes contacts. This group of countries are expected to play a key role in any potential Trump peace initiative in the region.

Saudi Arabia, another influential Gulf country, recently announced its “rejection” of Israel's annexation plans. Jordan and Egypt, the only Arab countries with formal peace agreements with Israel, have also condemned the plan, while the Palestinians say they are no longer obligated to honor past agreements with Israel and have suspended security cooperation to protest annexation.