Ne­tanyahu vows to be­gin an­nex­ing West Bank set­tle­ments

Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu is vow­ing to an­nex part of the West Bank if he wins re-elec­tion, a move that could ex­tin­guish any re­main­ing Pales­tinian hope of es­tab­lish­ing a sep­a­rate state.

Miami Herald - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID M. HALBFINGER New York Times

JERUSALEM

Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu of Israel said Tues­day that he would move swiftly to an­nex nearly a third of the oc­cu­pied West Bank if vot­ers re­turned him to power in the elec­tion next week, seiz­ing what he called a his­toric op­por­tu­nity from a sym­pa­thetic White House to give Israel “se­cure, per­ma­nent borders.”

His plan to an­nex ter­ri­tory along the Jordan River would re­shape the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict and would re­duce any fu­ture Pales­tinian state to an en­clave en­cir­cled by Israel.

Ne­tanyahu’s ri­vals on

the left and right largely greeted the an­nounce­ment, made in the heat of a cam­paign in which he is battling for sur­vival, as a trans­par­ent po­lit­i­cal ploy.

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 an­nex 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.

He said he wanted to capitalize on what he called the “unique, one-off op­por­tu­nity” af­forded him by the Trump 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.”

Israel seized the West

Bank from Jordan in the

1967 war. Most of the world con­sid­ers it oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory and Is­raeli set­tle­ments or an­nex­a­tions there to be il­le­gal.

Ne­tanyahu, who is in a dead heat or slightly be­hind in the polls against Benny Gantz, a cen­trist for­mer army chief of staff, has tried might­ily to shift the fo­cus of the elec­tion from the cor­rup­tion cases against him to his strong suit: na­tional se­cu­rity. He has high­lighted Israel’s in­creas­ingly overt mil­i­tary cam­paign against Ira­nian ex­pan­sion and even un­veiled a new site where he said Iran had once pur­sued nu­clear weapons.

But Tues­day’s an­nounce­ment was a dar­ing bid to bring the Pales­tinian con­flict back to cen­ter stage in the elec­tion cam­paign. The is­sue has largely re­ceded from Is­raeli elec­toral pol­i­tics be­cause few vot­ers be­lieve a peace process has any chance.

This was not the first time Ne­tanyahu has promised an­nex­a­tion days be­fore an elec­tion. Be­fore the pre­vi­ous elec­tion, in April, in which he was also fight­ing to shore up right-wing 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.”

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

Saeb Erekat, the long­time chief Pales­tinian ne­go­tia­tor, 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. “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 from Gaza later Tues­day night 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.

Re­ac­tion to Ne­tanyahu’s an­nounce­ment was muted in the Arab world, where the Pales­tinian cause no longer stirs the pas­sions it once did.

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.

Daniel C. Kurtzer, a for­mer United States 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 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.”

As for the Amer­i­can sup­port, Daniel B. Shapiro, the for­mer am­bas­sador to Israel un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, warned that any cel­e­bra­tion of a Trump recog­ni­tion of Is­raeli sovereignt­y over the West Bank could be short-lived. “A Demo­cratic suc­ces­sor to Trump would cer­tainly with­draw U.S. recog­ni­tion,” he said.

Ne­tanyahu’s gam­bit also met deep skep­ti­cism among Is­raeli an­a­lysts, who said he has fre­quently made elec­tion-eve prom­ises that went un­ful­filled, and noted that ear­lier right-wing at­tempts at an­nex­ing parts of the West Bank were blocked by none other than him.

But his ca­reer could end if he does not siphon enough votes from par­ties to his right in the cam­paign’s fi­nal days, and his an­nounce­ment was clearly aimed at tempt­ing Is­raelis who sup­port an­nex­ing the West Bank into giving him the ben­e­fit of the doubt.

His main op­po­nents from the cen­ter — 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.

In a speech late Tues­day, Gantz looked past the spe­cific pro­posal to as­sail Ne­tanyahu for dam­ag­ing the longterm re­la­tion­ship with the United States by ex­ploit­ing it for short-term po­lit­i­cal needs. “Ne­tanyahu is us­ing and hurt­ing the ties be­tween Israel and the U.S.” he said. “He is harm­ing our ties with the Jewish com­mu­nity in the U.S. He is link­ing our pol­i­tics with the Amer­i­cans, and this is wrong. Our ties are strategic, th­ese con­nec­tions are deep and vi­tal and are based on shared in­ter­ests and not on elec­tion-time deals.”

Sev­eral Amer­i­can Jewish groups sup­port­ing a twostate so­lu­tion im­me­di­ately con­demned Ne­tanyahu’s plan.

In Israel, nearly half of Jewish Is­raelis have said they would fa­vor an­nex­a­tion if it were supported by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, one re­cent poll found. Fewer than three in 10 said they were op­posed.

Set­tler groups wel­comed Ne­tanyahu’s call for a man­date to an­nex ter­ri­tory, but they too were du­bi­ous. “The true test will be in ac­tions, not an­nounce­ments,” Re­gavim, a pro-set­tle­ment group that fights Pales­tinian con­struc­tion on the West Bank, said in a state­ment.

Yam­ina, the right-wing party led by Ne­tanyahu’s for­mer jus­tice min­is­ter, Ayelet Shaked, chal­lenged Ne­tanyahu to bring his an­nex­a­tion plan be­fore the cur­rent govern­ment within hours, “oth­er­wise ev­ery­one in Israel will know this is noth­ing but a cheap po­lit­i­cal spin.”

The elec­tion on Tues­day is tak­ing place be­cause Ne­tanyahu failed to form a gov­ern­ing coali­tion af­ter the April bal­lot when a one­time ally, Avig­dor Lieber­man of the Yis­rael Beit­einu party, refused to join him.

ABIR SUL­TAN EPA Pool via AP | File

Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, cen­ter, ex­its a mil­i­tary he­li­copter on June 23 as he vis­its an old army out­post over­look­ing the Jordan Val­ley.

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