Blue & White co-leader Yair Lapid said Monday that embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has turned U.S. President Donald Trump's initiative for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into an election campaign "stunt" by pushing for the immediate annexation of West Bank settlements.
Lapid insisted he was against unilateral steps endangering what he described as Trump's promising Mideast plan. He expressed hope that the Palestinians would come around to negotiating based upon the U.S. blueprint.
Lapid is slated to become Israel's next foreign minister if his party prevails in the March 2 election and, fellow party leader Benny Gantz wins the premiership.
"Nobody expects Israel or the Palestinians to take the plan face value the way it is and just make sure it happens. Everybody understands this is a framework, a very detailed one," Lapid told an audience of foreign correspondents in Jerusalem.
Lapid went on to condemn what he said was the prime minister's "unilateral steps" to annex parts of the West Bank.
"This is something that came out from the prime minister's office right after the plan was presented. Probably, it seems, for campaign reasons. And this is something you don't do. This is too serious to become a stunt in the campaign," the former finance minister said.
The Trump plan is widely viewed as being favorable to Israel since it would allow it to eventually extend sovereignty over all of its West Bank settlements along with the strategic Jordan Valley.
The Palestinians have angrily rejected the U.S. plan. It would only provide Palestinians with limited autonomy in several chunks of territory with a capital on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and only if they meet stringent conditions.
Netanyahu has sought to sell the plan, and his close relationship to Trump, as a testament to his master statesmanship ahead of the country's third elections in less than a year. He's also seeking to galvanize his hard-line base by annexing territory ahead of the election. The proposed move could establish facts on the ground that would be difficult to reverse and make the prospect of a contiguous Palestinian state all but impossible.
But he's been forced to walk that pledge back under criticism from the typically like-minded Trump administration that has chided Israel's zest for annexation.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman reiterated that concern, saying Sunday that such a move was "subject to the completion of a mapping process by a joint Israeli-American committee," and warning that rushing it undermines the plan.
"The president put out a plan for the next hundred years, not the next 30 days," Friedman said, alluding to the upcoming election.
The Palestinians seek the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem for an independent state. The U.S. is eager to keep the option of statehood on the table.
Lapid, whose centrist party is seeking to unseat Netanyahu, would not detail how his vision differed from Netanyahu's beyond saying he would favor direct negotiation with the Palestinians rather than imposing a framework upon them.
"We are against anything that is unilateral," the former late-night show host said.
At the same time, Lapid called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to drop his intransigence, realize that time is not working in his favor and take a serious look at the plan as a basis for talks.
"Our approach to the Palestinians is to tell them that always saying "no" isn't a policy," Lapid said. "If instead of always automatically responding with violence and threats, they will take the time to delve deeply into the Trump plan they will see that it contains many opportunities for the Palestinian people."
With former military chief Benny Gantz at the helm, Blue & White is polling ahead of Netanyahu's Likud three weeks before the election. Both sides are looking for a final surge to put them over the top after two deadlocked elections that did not produce a clear winner.
Lapid said Likud was a viable option to partner with but that his party would not join forces with Netanyahu, who has been indicted on three separate corruption charges.
Beyond the moral message, Lapid said Netanyahu was incapable of implementing the Trump plan or tackling any other major challenge given his pending corruption trial and the stagnation that comes with his lengthy rule.
"What is happening to him is the same thing that happens to every leader who holds on to power for too long. The unholy trinity: Corruption, loss of empathy, no new ideas," Lapid said.