Tel Aviv: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would extend sovereignty to areas of the West Bank, an incendiary gambit Israeli leaders have avoided for half a century, just days ahead of national elections.
Asked in a TV interview on Saturday why he hadn’t annexed settlements although he has been in power for almost a decade, Netanyahu promised his next term would be “fateful."
The declaration seemed aimed squarely at right-wing voters whose support Netanyahu needs to secure a fifth term on 9 April, and can distract attention from his potential indictment on bribery and fraud charges in a swirling corruption investigation.
“I am going to apply sovereignty, but I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated settlement points," Netanyahu said. “From my perspective, each of those settlement points are Israeli."
Turning point -- or not
Netanyahu’s statements are either historic — or another in a long line of inflammatory proclamations he has made before elections, and later walked back. That he raised annexation of the West Bank — the 50-year dream of the Israeli right, the ultimate red line for Palestinians and other Arab nations and much of the world — shows the upcoming election is as tight as possible. Polls show a close race between Netanyahu’s Likud party and the centrist Blue & White bloc led by former army chief Benny Gantz.
“Netanyahu’s talk of West Bank annexation needs to be taken with a big grain of salt," said Shalom Lipner, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who has served seven Israeli prime ministers. “With only three days left in a brutal election campaign, he and his competitors are all searching desperately for an edge to put them over the top at the polls. The annexation card -- popular among a large swath of Netanyahu’s supporters -- is the ultimate Hail Mary pass."
Saeb Erekat, the veteran negotiator and senior Palestinian official, said on Twitter: “Such a statement by Netanyahu is not surprising. Israel will continue to brazenly violate international law for as long as the international community will continue to reward Israel with impunity.'
If Netanyahu means what he says about extending Israeli sovereignty, it would spell a fundamental reshaping of Israel, its relations with the Palestinians and other Arabs, as well as much of the rest of the world. For decades, the reality on the ground has been that Jews have lived in areas Israel conquered in the 1967 Middle East war under the repeated condemnation of the United Nations and most of the world, including the US.
Upend Trump plan?
Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war, and considers it essential for its security — as well as the cradle of Jewish civilization. Almost 2 million Palestinians live there, and claim the land for a future state.
Most experts believe the heavily settled areas near the pre-1967 boundary would become part of Israel as part of any peace agreement, with land swaps for the Palestinians elsewhere.
Any unilateral move to annex parts of the West Bank would likely provoke fierce international condemnation, and could disrupt President Donald Trump’s forthcoming peace plan. Trump is expected to present the plan in the weeks after the Israeli elections.
In the interview, Netanyahu brought up Trump’s decision last month to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the same 1967 war. Speculation had swirled that Israel might use US recognition of the Golan to justify annexing parts of the West Bank.
The April 9 election is shaping up as a close call. Likud is trailing Blue & White by several seats in most polls, but still seems to have the likeliest path to forming the next government at the head of a right-wing coalition. Netanyahu warned Friday that the only way to ensure another conservative government was to vote for Likud, and not for smaller parties further to his right, who would probably join his coalition in any case.