(Bloomberg) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he’d annex West Bank territory if re-elected next week, in a brazen ploy to bag right-wing votes ahead of the expected knife-edge vote.
The Trump administration will unveil its plan for Middle East peace days after Israel’s Sept. 17 election, and that presents Israel with “a historic, onetime chance to extend Israeli sovereignty over our settlements in Judea and Samaria, and also to other areas important to our security, our heritage, and our future,” he said Tuesday.
“I ask you to give me a clear mandate to extend Israeli sovereignty over all the settlements,” Netanyahu added.
Over 400,000 Israelis live in more than 120 settlements, which together with roads and other support systems account for about 60% of the West Bank. Annexation would deal a body blow to the Palestinians’ dreams of establishing an independent state with the West Bank as its heartland.
Those dreams have steadily eroded since December 2017, when the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital over the objections of the Palestinians, who claim the city’s eastern sector for a future capital. A senior Palestinian official called Netanyahu’s plan “madness.”
“If Prime Minister Netanyahu is allowed to implement his plans of annexation, he would have succeeded in burying even any chance of peace between Palestinians and Israelis,” said Saeb Erekat, a longtime peace negotiator and now secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization. “The Israeli, the international community must stop such madness. We need to end the conflict and not to keep it for another 100 years.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed alarm over Netanyahu’s pledge on Wednesday, saying such steps would be a blow to peace efforts.
“Such steps, if implemented, would constitute a serious violation of international law,” he said in a statement. “They would be devastating to the potential of reviving negotiations and regional peace, while severely undermining the viability of the two-State solution.”
The U.S. was informed of the announcement before it was made, and doesn’t think annexation would foreclose the possibility of a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Times of Israel website reported.
Later Tuesday, militants from the Gaza Strip fired two rockets at southern Israeli cities, including one where Netanyahu was holding an election rally. Netanyahu’s security detail hustled him off the stage at a campaign event in Ashdod after air raid sirens went off.
The rockets were intercepted by missile defenses, and early Wednesday, the Israeli air force struck 15 military targets in Gaza in retaliation.
Annexation of West Bank territory, captured in the 1967 Middle East war, had been considered taboo for decades in Israeli politics because of the international outcry it would spark. But as religious and nationalist political parties gained clout, and peacemaking with the Palestinians drifted off the country’s agenda amid continuing Palestinian attacks, the notion has come to resonate with large swaths of the Israeli public.
According to an August poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 48% of Jewish Israelis and 11% of Arab Israelis would favor such a plan if it were supported by President Donald Trump and his administration. This compares to 28% of Jewish Israelis and 56% of Arab Israelis who oppose the idea.
Netanyahu said the first area to be annexed if he’s re-elected would be the Jordan Valley, where Israeli forces now guard the country’s eastern flank with Jordan. There is wide support for such a move in Israel, including on the part of Netanyahu’s top election rival, former military chief Benny Gantz of the Blue and White bloc.
Dangling the prospect of annexation is a gambit Netanyahu has used before. Three days before Israel’s April 9 poll, and again last week, he suggested he’d extend Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank that are home to Jewish settlements if re-elected. Polls show his Likud party in a tight race with Blue and White, and Netanyahu has been warning nationalists that if they don’t vote for his slate, then his right-wing government will be toppled.
Endorsing a proposal that has become the battle cry of other hawkish politicians might burnish his nationalist credentials.
“It mostly, I think, is a way to get votes from the right,” said Professor Amichai Cohen, dean of the law faculty at Israel’s Ono Academic College.
(Updates to add UN Secretary-General’s comments in seventh paragraph.)
–With assistance from Ivan Levingston and David Wainer.
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