As vote nears, Ne­tanyahu vows to an­nex set­tle­ments

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY JAMES MCAU­LEY AND RUTH EGLASH

jerusalem — Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu on Tues­day re­peated his vow to ex­tend Is­raeli sovereignt­y to large por­tions of the oc­cu­pied West Bank if he is re­elected, the lat­est in a string of cam­paign prom­ises aimed at win­ning the sup­port of right-wing vot­ers.

Ne­tanyahu said Is­raeli an­nex­a­tion of lands that Pales­tini­ans hope to gain for a fu­ture state would be­gin with the Jordan Val­ley, a swath of ter­ri­tory along the bor­der with Jordan that many Is­raelis see as im­por­tant for Israel’s se­cu­rity.

The an­nounce­ment, which he said re­flected co­or­di­na­tion with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, was the most sub­stan­tive in a flurry of ap­peals he has made to re­li­gious Jews, West Bank set­tlers and oth­ers in the right-wing camp ahead of the Sept. 17 elec­tions. Opin­ion polls show Ne­tanyahu’s Likud party locked in a very tight race with the Blue and White party of for­mer army chief of staff Benny Gantz.

The con­test is so close that it could turn on Ne­tanyahu’s suc­cess

in wrest­ing vot­ers away from smaller, far-right par­ties, and in re­cent days he has been ham­mer­ing at sev­eral is­sues de­signed to ex­cite and alarm this mod­est, but per­haps strategic, con­stituency.

Last week, the prime min­is­ter vis­ited the small Jewish set­tle­ment in the heart of the West Bank city of He­bron, home to roughly 200,000 Pales­tini­ans. Ad­dress­ing some of the most fer­vent Jewish set­tlers in the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries, he vowed that the city would never be “Ju­den­rein” — the Nazi term for “free of Jews” — and pledged to ex­tend “Jewish sovereignt­y” to set­tle­ments across the West Bank.

Ear­lier this week, in an ad­dress to English-speak­ing sup­port­ers, he cau­tioned that an elec­tion vic­tory by his op­po­nents could mean Arab cit­i­zens of Israel might serve as cabi­net mem­bers. It was not the first time he had sought to mo­bi­lize back­ers by warn­ing of po­lit­i­cal gains by Israel’s Arab mi­nor­ity.

Ne­tanyahu on Tues­day re­turned to the theme of an­nex­ing West Bank set­tle­ments, where about 450,000 Is­raelis live in de­vel­op­ments — rang­ing from large towns to re­mote out­posts — con­sid­ered il­le­gal by most of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

“In re­cent months, I have led a di­plo­matic ef­fort to this ef­fect, and the con­di­tions have ripened,” he said. “This is a his­toric op­por­tu­nity we may not have again.”

Ne­tanyahu said his plan was be­ing drafted in co­or­di­na­tion with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, which is ex­pected to re­lease its long-awaited Mid­dle East peace plan some­time af­ter the Is­raeli elec­tions. There was no re­sponse from the White House to his an­nounce­ment.

Israel has con­trolled the West Bank since the 1967 war. Un­like in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, which were also seized in that war, Israel has never ex­tended its sovereignt­y to the West Bank, ex­cept for some ter­ri­tory near Jerusalem.

Ne­tanyahu pre­vi­ously promised to an­nex West Bank set­tle­ments, though he had not ex­plic­itly men­tioned the Jordan Val­ley, be­fore na­tional elec­tions in April. That vote pro­duced a dead­lock, send­ing Is­raelis back to the polls for do-over elec­tions next week.

Whether his pledges suc­ceed in in­flu­enc­ing the elec­tion out­come could de­pend on whether vot­ers find them 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,’ ” said An­shel Pf­ef­fer, the au­thor of “Bibi,” a 2018 bi­og­ra­phy of Ne­tanyahu. “Ob­vi­ously there will be some peo­ple who will swal­low it, but it re­ally smacks of des­per­a­tion.”

Eugene Kon­torovich, the di­rec­tor of in­ter­na­tional law at the Ko­helet Pol­icy Fo­rum, a right-wing Jerusalem think tank, praised Ne­tanyahu’s an­nounce­ment but said cred­i­bil­ity was still an is­sue.

“Prom­ises to do it in the fu­ture are not so cred­i­ble or raise questions about why it’s not be­ing done now,” Kon­torovich said.

In some quar­ters, how­ever, Ne­tanyahu’s cam­paign pitch may suc­ceed. Some set­tlers who pre­vi­ously supported far-right par­ties say they in­tend to vote for Ne­tanyahu next week.

“We don’t have the right to build here in He­bron. He will give us the right to build, in places stolen by Arabs,” said Aouva Ohayon, 62, who mi­grated from France to Israel in 1985 and has lived in He­bron for the past two decades. Ohayon is an Or­tho­dox Jew with six grand­chil­dren and teaches in the set­tle­ment’s day-care cen­ter. She said she typ­i­cally votes for the Jewish Power party but this time will sup­port Ne­tanyahu.

“Un­for­tu­nately, we have so many Arabs around us — and ter­ror­ists — but we have con­fi­dence in God, who pro­tects us,” she said.

Jewish Power, whose sup­port­ers Ne­tanyahu is courting, is con­tro­ver­sial among many Is­raelis be­cause key fig­ures in the party have been fol­low­ers of the rad­i­cal rightwing rabbi Meir Ka­hane.

“If you would have told Ne­tanyahu four years ago that he would one day ma­neu­ver him­self into a sit­u­a­tion where his per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal fu­ture de­pend on sup­port­ers of Meir Ka­hane, he would have laughed,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a se­nior fellow at the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hart­man In­sti­tute.

Ka­hane was an Amer­i­can-born Or­tho­dox rabbi and Is­raeli politi­cian who ad­vo­cated for Israel to adopt Jewish re­li­gious law and to an­nex the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries en­tirely. His racist views ul­ti­mately caused him to be banned from the Is­raeli par­lia­ment, and he was as­sas­si­nated in a New York City ho­tel in 1990 by an Arab gun­man.

Ne­tanyahu’s re­marks Tues­day were con­demned by Pales­tinian lead­ers. Saeb Erekat, sec­re­tary gen­eral of the Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion, called on the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to stop the an­nex­a­tion ini­tia­tive be­fore it “buries any re­main­ing prospects for peace and a vi­able and independen­t Pales­tinian state.”

“Israel’s plan to an­nex the Jordan Val­ley, an in­te­gral part of oc­cu­pied Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries, is man­i­festly il­le­gal,” Erekat, a for­mer peace ne­go­tia­tor, said in a state­ment.

“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,” said Erekat, who lives in the Jordan Val­ley.

In his pre­sen­ta­tion Tues­day, Ne­tanyahu called on Is­raeli vot­ers to ask them­selves whom they pre­ferred to lead ne­go­ti­a­tions over the ex­pected White House peace plan: him or his ri­vals from the Blue and White party.

Gantz coun­tered by say­ing that “the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Israel and the United States is founded upon com­mon in­ter­ests and val­ues, and it is stronger than any prime min­is­ter.” But he also stressed that he has no in­ten­tion of seeing Israel re­lin­quish the Jordan Val­ley: “Blue and White have made clear that the Jordan Val­ley will be a part of Israel for­ever.”

The per­sonal stakes for Ne­tanyahu in the elec­tions could not be higher. Pend­ing a hear­ing, the prime min­is­ter faces in­dict­ments in three crim­i­nal cases in­volv­ing fraud, bribery and breach of trust. If he re­mains in power, he may be able to win leg­is­la­tion in the par­lia­ment that would help him evade prose­cu­tion while in of­fice. If he loses the elec­tions, his chances for immunity from prose­cu­tion are greatly di­min­ished.

THOMAS COEX/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IM­AGES

Build­ings in the Maale Adu­mim set­tle­ment in the West Bank, on the out­skirts of Jerusalem. About 450,000 Is­raelis live in set­tle­ments in the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries, though such de­vel­op­ments are con­sid­ered il­le­gal by most of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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