March 19, 2019 / 8:39 PM / 6 months ago

Netanyahu's main election rival sidesteps Palestinian statehood

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strongest election rival, former army general Benny Gantz, said on Tuesday he would seek peace with the Palestinians but stopped short of endorsing their goal for statehood.

Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White party speaks to the media in Kibbutz Nir-Am, Israel March 15, 2019 REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Gantz, a centrist candidate, said in an interview with Hadashot TV news that Israel has a moral obligation to “strive for peace.”

“I will talk to anyone I can in order to advance a diplomatic solution,” Gantz said.

When asked whether the ultimate goal would be that of a Palestinian state, Gantz did not give a definitive answer although he did suggest that eventually Israel should separate from the Palestinians.

“At the end of the road there is a Jewish, democratic, safe and strong state with a solid Jewish majority and what happens on the other side would be an outcome of what happens at negotiations.”

Palestinians want to establish a state in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, territories that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. The last round of peace talks between the sides broke down in 2014.

The United States is widely expected to unveil a new peace proposal after the April 9 Israeli election. The Trump administration has wavered over whether it would endorse a Palestinian state, saying the final outcome will be up to the sides to determine, but both sides will have to compromise.

The Palestinians on their part have boycotted the Trump administration since it announced it recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and opened a new U.S. embassy there last year. Washington has also cut hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to the Palestinians.

Gantz’s Blue and White party has slipped in opinion polls recently, although it still has a slight lead over Netanyahu’s Likud in most surveys. However, Netanyahu still appears likely to win the most support from allied parties, allowing him to form a coalition of right-wing and religious factions similar to one he now heads.

After the attorney-general announced on Feb. 28 he plans to indict Netanyahu in three corruption cases, Gantz ruled out joining a Netanyahu government.

But in leaked recordings aired on Israeli Reshet News on Monday, Gantz said that things could change if Trump’s peace plan is put forward.

In Tuesday’s interview he said he would not join a Netanyahu government if charges are indeed filed against the prime minister.

Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, will have the chance to persuade the attorney-general to scrap the charges at a hearing expected after the election.

Reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Frances Kerry

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