JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's toughest election rival voiced openness on Wednesday to a future removal of settlements from the occupied West Bank, sparking debate over diplomacy with the Palestinians as a US peace plan looms.
The secret plan is widely expected to be unveiled after Israel's April 9 ballot. Any recommendations it might contain to hand over territory to the Palestinians - and how Israelis respond - could affect the composition of Israel's next coalition government.
Pollsters see Netanyahu's conservative Likud party winning around 30 of parliament's 120 seats, setting him up for a fifth term. He has ruled out removing settlements from the West Bank, among areas where Palestinians want statehood.
Benny Gantz, a popular ex-general whose new Resilience party is gaining ground against Likud with as many as 24 projected seats, stepped into the settlements minefield on Wednesday.
"We need to find a way not to have dominion over other people," Gantz told Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper when asked about prospects for accommodation with the Palestinians, whose negotiations with Netanyahu stalled in 2014.
Citing Israel's unilateral 2005 Gaza withdrawal, Gantz added: "We need to take the lessons and apply them elsewhere."
The Gaza pullout was a boost for the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which has since fought three wars with Israel.
In a statement, Likud accused Gantz of planning to form a "leftist government" with the help of Israeli Arab parties that have pro-Palestinian sympathies.
Naftali Bennett, a partner in the current rightist coalition, said on Twitter: "Given the Trump plan for a Palestinian state that awaits us immediately after the election, there is a clear and present danger here to the settlements."
The Trump administration has not explicitly endorsed Palestinian statehood. US envoys have spoken of both sides in the conflict needing to compromise.
Resilience signalled Gantz would conduct any West Bank withdrawals differently to the Gaza pullout - a possible hint at agreed redeployments with the Palestinians.
"No unilateral decision will be made on settlement evacuation," the party said in a statement, adding that Gantz would "maintain ... non-negotiable security protections".
The Palestinians responded by reiterating their position that the settlements are an obstacle to their statehood goal and should be removed unless annexed by Israel under negotiated territorial exchanges.
"These ideals and values are the way to achieve peace," said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has boycotted the Trump administration since December 2017 over its perceived pro-Israel leanings.
"It's encouraging, if he succeeds and he sticks to this opinion," Abu Rudeineh said.
Most world powers consider Jewish settlements on land captured in a 1967 war to be illegal under the Geneva conventions. Israel disputes this, citing biblical ties to the land, and has expanded the settlement population steadily, including during the past decade under Netanyahu.
The last peace talks collapsed in 2014, in part over the issue of settlements.