Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, desperate to gain votes in next week’s national elections, pledged Tuesday to annex a large chunk of the occupied West Bank if he wins re-election this month.
The plan, if enacted, would spell disaster hopes for a two-state solution, taking land intended for a future Palestinian state, and leaving Palestinian territory in the West Bank completely encircled by Israel. Predictably, the campaign promise has outraged the Arab world, prompting warnings the move would be the death knell of any hopes of peace in the region.
In a live speech on Israeli TV, Netanyahu said he planned to apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea — territory that comprises nearly one-third of the occupied West Bank.
Calling the land “Israel’s eastern border,” he said the annexation would happen “immediately after the election if I receive a clear mandate to do so from you, the citizens of Israel.”
Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat said the move would “bury any chance of peace,” while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said any annexation would immediately extinguish any agreements previously reached with the Israelis.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day war, but never annexed the territory, while Palestinians claim the whole area for a future independent state. About 65,000 Palestinians and 11,000 Israeli settlers live in the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea area.
Netanyahu also reiterated a pledge to annex all Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but said he would wait until the release of President Donald Trump’s plan for a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, expected shortly after the Israeli elections. He credited his “personal relationship with President Trump” for granting him a “unique, one-off opportunity” to expand and secure the country’s borders.
“We haven’t had such an opportunity since the Six Day War, and I doubt we’ll have another opportunity in the next 50 years,” he said. A recent poll suggests nearly half of Jewish Israelis would support the move if it were endorsed by the Trump administration.
In 2017, the Trump administration broke with international consensus — and decades of U.S. policy — by recognizing East Jerusalem as part of Israel. It did the same with the Golan Heights in March. Palestinians warned that the moves would set a dangerous precedent for Israeli land grabs in the West Bank.
Critics warned Tuesday that further moves to undermine the two-state solution would drive the Palestinians to abandon any efforts towards peace.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres saying the plan would be “devastating” to prospects for peace, and would not be internationally recognized, while the Arab League released a statement saying Netanyahu was “undermining the chances of any progress in the peace process and [would] torpedo all its foundations.”
Jordan’s Foreign Minister, Ayman Safadi, said the plan could “push the whole region towards violence,” while Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization, tweeted that Netanyahu was seeking to carry out “an ethnic cleansing agenda.”
In Israel, rival parties dismissed the announcement as a naked political ploy and expressed scepticism that the veteran leader would deliver on his pledge.
The opposition centrist Blue and White party, currently neck-and-neck with Netanyahu’s Likud in the polls, dismissed the announcement as an “election trick.”
“It’s not even a particularly successful trick because the lie is so transparent,” said the party’s co-leader Yair Lapid, adding Netanyahu “doesn't want to annex territories, he wants to annex votes.” Israel last held national elections in April, but is returning to the polls because Netanyahu, whose popularity has been hit by a series of corruption scandals, failed to form a coalition.
Rival right-wing party Yamina challenged Netanyahu to push for the policy while in government, or else his promise would be dismissed as “cheap political spin,” while a pro-settler group, Regavim, also expressed doubts that Netanyahu would deliver. “The true test will be in actions, not announcements,” it said in a statement.
Shortly after making the announcement Tuesday, Netanyahu was forced to briefly leave the stage at an election rally because of rockets fired towards the cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon from Gaza. The Israeli military said the rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, and Israeli aircraft hit 15 targets in retaliatory strikes on Hamas sites in Gaza.
Cover: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. Netanyahu vowed Tuesday to begin annexing West Bank settlements if he wins national elections next week. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)