Returning to a time-tested electoral tactic, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he will move to extend Israeli sovereignty over part of the West Bank if reelected in next week’s vote.
Addressing Israelis in his fourth dramatically advertised statement in 24 hours, Netanyahu implied that President Trump’s peace plan, which has been anticipated for two years, will afford Israel the “historic opportunity” to annex parts of the occupied West Bank considered central to Israeli security.
But Netanyahu stopped short of claiming to have Trump’s approval for any dramatic move.
“Out of respect for President Trump and out of great faith in our friendship, I will wait for the release of the president’s peace plan before extending sovereignty,” Netanyahu said. “To the extent possible, I want to extend sovereignty to these communities and other areas in maximum coordination with the United States.”
The Trump administration has not set any date for the release of the long-awaited plan, which has been coordinated by Jared Kushner, the president’s senior advisor and son-in-law.
If reelected in the Sept. 17 vote, Netanyahu would have to seek approval of the Knesset — Israel’s parliament — to annex the territory. He would also have to overcome potential significant legal challenges both within Israel and in the international community, which considers Israel’s 52-year occupation of the West Bank illegal.
In his remarks, the prime minister said that he was “announcing my intention to apply” Israeli sovereignty over “the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea, if I receive your mandate.”
Netanyahu, who has been struggling in the polls, is facing the daunting double challenge of a steep battle for reelection in one week and Oct. 2 and 3 hearings in which his attorney general will lay out evidence ahead of the Israeli leader’s expected indictment in several corruption cases.
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Netanyahu has stayed on in a caretaker capacity since late May, when he failed to form a government after narrowly besting the opposition in April elections, an unprecedented political stalemate that resulted in two consecutive elections.
On April 7, two days ahead of the previous vote, Netanyahu similarly announced he planned to act to annex the West Bank if reelected.
“A Palestinian state will endanger our existence, and I rebuffed massive pressure over the past eight years; no prime minister has withstood such pressure. We must control our destiny,” he said, in an allusion to his disputes with President Obama over Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
At an event this month in the West Bank settlement of Elkana, Netanyahu said he hoped to apply Israeli sovereignty to “all Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria,” the biblical name for the West Bank. “There will be no further uprooting” of settlements, he said.
The United States has long opposed Israeli settlement in the West Bank, but both Kushner and Ambassador David Friedman have openly supported ongoing Jewish settlement in the disputed area.
Friedman and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s outgoing envoy for international negotiations, have said that the term “occupation” may not apply in the West Bank.
On Monday, a senior administration official quoted by Israel’s Kan Television channel said, “There is no change in the 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.”
The Israeli premier’s election rivals criticized the announcement, with Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and former army chief of staff, tweeting that Netanyahu’s announcement of “annexation pending indictment hearing” could not be taken seriously.
Ayman Odeh, leader of the largest Arab-majority party in Israel’s political fray, said Netanyahu’s announcement reflected the right wing’s “vision of apartheid.”
In a statement, Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, said that Netanyahu’s announced plan “is manifestly illegal and merely adds to Israel’s long history of violations of international law.”
“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,” he said.
Anshel Pfeffer, Netanyahu’s biographer and a columnist for the left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz, tweeted his skepticism that Netanyahu’s right-wing voters would “believe that after all this time, the ‘historic opportunity’ to annex the Jordan Valley is suddenly just a week before the election.”
But Netanyahu received an enthusiastic reception from the electoral base he was addressing, including the head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, who congratulated the prime minister on his move.
In a statement released just ahead of Netanyahu’s remarks, David Elhayani said the moment “was one of the most significant and moving of my 11-year term.”
Netanyahu’s day ended on a deeply unsettling note.
Air-raid sirens shrieked as he addressed a campaign event in the southern port city of Ashdod, and videos of the prime minister being hastily removed from the stage by burly bodyguards quickly went viral in Israeli social media.
The Israeli army confirmed that two rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, both intercepted by the Iron Dome aerial defense system.
Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.