‘Endgame scenario’: Israel’s Netanyahu vows to annex large parts of occupied West Bank
Arab nations say PM’s plan to force Israeli sovereignty on Jordan Valley will ‘torpedo’ peace negotiations
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has enraged his Arab neighbours and the wider international community by pledging to annex more territory in the occupied West Bank if he wins the country’s general election next week.
As his nation prepares to go to the polls on 17 September, Netanyahu has announced on Israeli TV that should he win, his new government will “apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea”, says the BBC.
He added that such a move would take place “immediately after the election if I receive a clear mandate to do so from you, the citizens of Israel”.
Netanyahu is making a bid for a fifth consecutive term in power. The Guardian, which claims the controversial PM is “fighting for his political life” after a series of scandals rocked his premiership during 2019. Recent polls suggest that his right-wing nationalist Likud party is neck and neck with the opposition centrist Blue and White party.
Many commentators see his latest pledge as the continuation of a campaign “aimed at winning the support of right-wing voters”, The Washington Post reports. All the same, this is the “most substantive in a flurry of appeals he has made to religious Jews, West Bank settlers and others in the right-wing camp”, the newspaper adds.
Arab nations have reacted furiously to the plan, which The Guardian suggests may be an “endgame scenario” for Palestinians’ aspirations of statehood. The chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the proposal “manifestly illegal” and says Netanyahu’s roposal “buries any remaining prospects for peace”, The Washington Post added.
What is Netanyahu’s plan?
During his televised announcement this week, Netanyahu pledged to apply “Israeli sovereignty” over the Jordan Valley and the northern end of the Dead Sea, which constitutes around 30% of the Palestinian West Bank.
According to Al Jazeera, as many as 65,000 Palestinians and about 11,000 illegal Israeli settlers live in the area – “most of which is under Israeli military control” – in what Israel refers to as Area C.
The Washington Post suggests that these two areas constitue a “swath of territory… that many Israelis see as important for Israel’s security”.
During the speech, he also reaffirmed a prior pledge to annex all of the Jewish-only settlements Israel has established in the West Bank, despite international law viewing both the West Bank and East Jerusalem as “occupied territories” and considering all Jewish settlement-building activity there as illegal.
Currently, around 650,000 Israeli Jews live in approximately 100 settlements in these territories, all of which have been built since 1967.
The Times of Israel notes, however, that right-wing Israelis who support the plan do not see Israel’s operations in the West Bank as illegal annexation, because they believe annexation is the act of reclaiming territory that previously belonged to another country. “The West Bank by contrast, they argue, is disputed territory that does not have a previous sovereign,” the paper says.
Why is he proposing this?
The official government line will likely be that the Jordan Valley is vital for security. The Jerusalem Post says that successive Israeli governments have viewed control of the Jordan Valley as a “strategic asset for Israel” as it “completes the country’s eastern border with Jordan and allows Israeli forces to encircle the West Bank’s Palestinian population”.
For reasons that are somewhat unclear, Netanyahu said in his statement that the move represents a “historic opportunity” for Israel, but his opponents in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) and reporters are seeing through his bluff.
The BBC’s Middle East correspondent, Tom Bateman, says the move is designed to “help him shore up support on the political right”, while Blue and White’s co-leader, Yair Lapid, claimed Netanyahu “doesn’t want to annex territories, he wants to annex votes.
“This is an election trick and it’s not even a particularly successful trick because the lie is so transparent,” he said.
Anshel Pfeffer, a biographer of the Israeli PM, says that even right-wingers may not find him credible. “He’s expecting right-wing voters to believe that suddenly, after all these years he’s been in power and he’s done nothing in this direction – suddenly, a week before the election – this is the ‘historical opportunity’.
“Obviously there will be some people who will swallow it, but it really smacks of desperation,” he added.
What have Israel’s neighbours said?
Foreign ministers from many Arab nations meeting in Cairo issued a joint statement condemning the move as a “dangerous development.
“The [Arab] league regards these statements as undermining the chances of any progress in the peace process and will torpedo all its foundations,” they added, reports the Guardian.
A slew of government statements later filtered through from other Muslim-majority nations, with Qatar criticising Israel’s “continued contempt of international law”, Turkey calling Netanyahu’s proposal “racist” and Saudi Arabia calling for an emergency meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), as Al Jazeera reports.
“If the annexation is carried out, it will have succeeded in burying any prospect of peace for the next 100 years,” tweeted Erekat. “The Israelis, the international community must stop this madness. Annexation is a war crime.”
The United Nations also appeared to side with Israel’s Arab neighbours, with one spokesperson calling Netanyahu’s pledge “devastating to the potential of reviving negotiations, regional peace and the very essence of a two-state solution”, while the Jerusalem Post adds that the “chances for peace are already pretty slim. But this could make them a little slimmer.”
What has the US said?
As with the implementation of many of Israel’s hard-line anti-Palestinian policies since Donald Trump became US president in 2017, Netanyahu appeared to suggest that his latest plan has been approved by officials in Washington.
“I am waiting to do this in maximum coordination with [Donald] Trump,” Netanyahu said in his speech this week, before adding that the Trump administration’s Middle East strategy - referred to as the “Deal of the Century” by Trump acolytes - was likely to be published within days of the election and claimed that his opponents would not be able to handle its policies, the BBC says.
However, when questioned on whether the US had backed up Israel’s plans, a spokesperson said there had been “no change in United States policy at this time.
“We will release our Vision for Peace after the Israeli election and work to determine the best path forward to bring long-sought security, opportunity and stability to the region,” the spokesperson added.