Is­raeli vows to seize third of West Bank

Ne­tanyahu evokes Trump in prom­ise

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JERUSALEM — Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu said Tues­day that he will move swiftly to an­nex nearly a third of the oc­cu­pied West Bank if vot­ers in next week’s elec­tion choose to keep him in power.

His plan to an­nex ter­ri­tory along the Jor­dan River would give the na­tion “se­cure, per­ma­nent bor­ders” to the east for the first time in its his­tory, he said.

But it also would re­duce any fu­ture Pales­tinian state to an en­clave en­cir­cled by Is­rael. Ne­tanyahu’s ri­vals on the left and right largely greeted the an­nounce­ment as a po­lit­i­cal ploy in the heat of a cam­paign in which he is bat­tling to re­main in of­fice.

Is­rael seized the West Bank from Jor­dan in the 1967 Mideast war. Most of the world con­sid­ers it oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory and Is­raeli set­tle­ments or an­nex­a­tions there to be illegal.

Ne­tanyahu said he wanted to cap­i­tal­ize on what he

called the “unique, one-off op­por­tu­nity” af­forded him by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, which has ex­pressed open­ness to Is­raeli an­nex­a­tion of at least parts of the West Bank.

“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,” Ne­tanyahu said at a news con­fer­ence in the Tel Aviv sub­urb of Ra­mat Gan. “Give me the power to guar­an­tee Is­rael’s se­cu­rity. Give me the power to de­ter­mine Is­rael’s bor­ders.”

The White House said in a state­ment that there was “no change in United States pol­icy at this time,” and it con­firmed that the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s long-promised plan for peace be­tween the Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans would be re­leased af­ter the Sept. 17 elec­tion.

U.S. of­fi­cials said Ne­tanyahu had told them about his pro­posal ahead of time and that they had not raised any ob­jec­tions be­cause they do not be­lieve it will af­fect prospects for an even­tual peace agree­ment. The of­fi­cials spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they were not au­tho­rized to talk to the me­dia.

Ne­tanyahu earned the largest share of the vote in an April elec­tion but ul­ti­mately failed to form a gov­ern­ing coali­tion. He has strug­gled to main­tain his hold on power as he also faces in­dict­ments in three crim­i­nal cases in­volv­ing fraud, bribery and breach of trust.

Locked in a close race against Benny Gantz, a cen­trist for­mer army chief of staff, Ne­tanyahu has tried to shift the fo­cus of the elec­tion away from the cor­rup­tion scan­dals and to­ward na­tional-se­cu­rity is­sues.

Ne­tanyahu has high­lighted Is­rael’s in­creas­ingly overt mil­i­tary cam­paign against Ira­nian ex­pan­sion and an­nounced the dis­cov­ery of a site where he said Iran had once pur­sued nu­clear weapons. But Tues­day’s an­nounce­ment was seen as a bid to draw the Pales­tinian con­flict back to cen­ter stage in the elec­tion cam­paign.

This was not the first time Ne­tanyahu has days be­fore an elec­tion made a prom­ise re­lated to an­nex­a­tion. Be­fore the April elec­tion, as he was fight­ing to shore up rightwing sup­port, he an­nounced his in­ten­tion to ap­ply Is­raeli sovereignt­y to parts of the West Bank. But he gave no specifics and no timetable.

This time, Ne­tanyahu boasted that thanks to “my per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with Pres­i­dent Trump, I will be able to an­nex all the set­tle­ments in the heart of our home­land.”

Ne­tanyahu said he planned to an­nex all Is­raeli set­tle­ments in the West Bank and that he would move im­me­di­ately af­ter form­ing a new gov­ern­ment to pro­ceed in the Jor­dan Val­ley, a strate­gic and fer­tile strip of ter­ri­tory along the bor­der with Jor­dan that runs from Beit Shean in north­ern Is­rael to the shores of the Dead Sea.

Pales­tini­ans see the Jor­dan Val­ley as their fu­ture bread­bas­ket. Is­rael’s crit­ics say it has been steadily up­root­ing Arab farm­ers and herders from the area.

Ne­tanyahu’s main op­po­nents — Gantz and the other for­mer army chiefs who are run­ning in his Blue and White party — have said pub­licly that Is­rael must not yield the Jor­dan Val­ley for se­cu­rity rea­sons, leav­ing them lit­tle room to chal­lenge his plan.

But Gantz and his party crit­i­cized Ne­tanyahu’s an­nounce­ment, ac­cus­ing him of mak­ing an empty prom­ise and of play­ing pol­i­tics.

“The res­i­dents of the Jor­dan Val­ley do not fea­ture in Ne­tanyahu’s pro­pa­ganda,” Gantz said in a state­ment. “Blue and White have made clear that the Jor­dan Val­ley will be a part of Is­rael for­ever. Ne­tanyahu drafted a plan to cede the Jor­dan Val­ley in 2014.”

Yair Lapid, the No. 2 Blue and White leader and a for­mer fi­nance min­is­ter, said that Ne­tanyahu had had 13 years as prime min­is­ter and that “no one stopped him from ap­ply­ing sovereignt­y to the Jor­dan Val­ley.” Lapid dis­missed the an­nounce­ment as “an elec­tion stunt.”

Ehud Barak, a for­mer prime min­is­ter who is cam­paign­ing to oust the cur­rent leader, said Ne­tanyahu “has no public or moral man­date to de­ter­mine things so fate­ful to the state of Is­rael.”

PALES­TINI­ANS RE­ACT

Pales­tinian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas said all agree­ments with Is­rael will be can­celed if Ne­tanyahu presses for­ward.

“We have the right to de­fend our rights and achieve our goals by all avail­able means, what­ever the re­sults, as Ne­tanyahu’s de­ci­sions con­tra­dict the res­o­lu­tions of in­ter­na­tional le­git­i­macy and in­ter­na­tional law,” he said.

Saeb Erekat, the long­time chief ne­go­tia­tor for the Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion, warned Tues­day night that if Ne­tanyahu man­ages to put through his plan, he will have “suc­ceeded in bury­ing even any chance of peace be­tween Pales­tini­ans and Is­raelis.”

He added that uni­lat­eral an­nex­a­tion of oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory was a war crime.

“Is­rael’s un­prece­dented cul­ture of im­punity, en­abled by in­ter­na­tional in­ac­tion, is the only ex­pla­na­tion for Mr. Ne­tanyahu’s au­dac­ity in us­ing an­nex­a­tion as an elec­tion ploy, and ask­ing the Is­raeli public to fa­cil­i­tate yet an­other Is­raeli crime,” Erekat said.

“The Is­raeli, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity must stop such mad­ness,” he said. “We need to end the con­flict and not to keep it for an­other 100 years.”

In a pos­si­ble sign of Pales­tinian dis­plea­sure, rock­ets fired Tues­day night from Gaza set off alarms in south­ern Is­rael, in­clud­ing in Ash­dod, where Ne­tanyahu was hus­tled off­stage by body­guards to take cover in the mid­dle of a cam­paign speech.

Jor­dan’s for­eign min­is­ter, Ay­man Safadi, con­demned the an­nex­a­tion plan as “a se­ri­ous es­ca­la­tion that un­der­mines all peace ef­forts.”

At the United Na­tions, Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral An­to­nio Guter­res also re­jected the pro­posal. “Such a prospect would be dev­as­tat­ing to the po­ten­tial of re­viv­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions, re­gional peace and the very essence of a two-state so­lu­tion,” said U.N. spokesman Stephane Du­jar­ric.

Daniel Kurtzer, a for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to Is­rael un­der Re­pub­li­can and Demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tions, said there was a con­sen­sus within Is­rael’s na­tional se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment that Is­rael should re­tain con­trol of the Jor­dan Val­ley for some pe­riod af­ter a peace treaty is signed, to en­sure that the Pales­tini­ans con­tinue to co­op­er­ate with Is­rael to main­tain se­cu­rity.

But uni­lat­eral an­nex­a­tion was an­other thing, he said.

“If Ne­tanyahu now says for­ever,” Kurtzer said, “this clearly will not be ac­cept­able to any present or fu­ture Pales­tinian leader.”

Ad­vo­cates of a two-state so­lu­tion to the Pales­tinian con­flict, who have been warn­ing that an­nex­a­tion could be dis­as­trous for Is­rael, said Tues­day that a move like the one Ne­tanyahu was propos­ing could be enough to drive the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity ei­ther to aban­don its se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion with Is­rael on the West Bank or to fold up its tents al­to­gether.

Ei­ther ac­tion could lead to vi­o­lence that could force Is­rael to send its troops back into ter­ri­tory where Pales­tini­ans have largely po­liced them­selves, said Nim­rod Novik, a vet­eran Is­raeli peace ne­go­tia­tor.

AP/ODED BALILTY

“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,” Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu said Tues­day in Tel Aviv. He cited the “unique, one-off op­por­tu­nity” that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion’s sup­port pro­vides.

The New York Times/RINA CASTELNUOV­O

Is­raeli sol­diers stand watch over the Jor­dan Val­ley near the West Bank Pales­tinian vil­lage of Bardala in 2014 dur­ing a tour by mem­bers of Is­rael’s Par­lia­ment. Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu vowed Tues­day to an­nex ter­ri­tory along the Jor­dan River, giv­ing the na­tion “se­cure, per­ma­nent bor­ders” to the east for the first time in its his­tory, he said.

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