Three days before Israelis head to vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that if victorious, he will extend Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, a demand long sought by Israel’s extreme right-wing settler movement.
Netanyahu, in a tight race for reelection to a fourth consecutive term, has until now resisted demands which would end any possibility of a negotiated settlement with the Palestinian Authority, which sees the land as a major part of a future Palestinian state.
The international community would judge any such move as a flagrant violation of international law that prohibits the annexation of land seized in war.
Following the end of the British Mandate, Jordan won the West Bank during the 1948 war that saw the founding of Israel. Its annexation of the land in 1950 was recognized only by Iraq, Pakistan and the United Kingdom.
In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel won the territory, and has held it under military occupation ever since.
According to U.S. government statistics, about 2.7 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, alongside some 390,000 Israeli Jewish settlers, many of whom claim national rights over the land.
The U.S. State Department declined to comment on Netanyahu’s statement.
During a Saturday evening interview, when asked why he has not yet annexed two large Jerusalem-area settlements, Gush Etzion and Ma’aleh Adumim, Netanyahu replied, “We are on the way. We are in discussions,” before pivoting to the accusation that his political opponents — former army chief of staff Benny Gantz and former finance minister Yair Lapid — “would uproot 80,000 to 90,000 Jews and turn Judea and Samaria into Gaza.”
Judea and Samaria is the biblical name of the West Bank.
Netanyahu continued, promising that if reelected, he plans on extending a “gradual imposition of Israeli sovereignty” over the entire territory.
“If we learned anything,” he said, in a reference to Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, after which it was violently overtaken by the Islamist paramilitary group Hamas in 2007, “it is that if you abandon territory, extremist radical Islam and Iran step in, and I am not about to hand over the heart of Israel.”
Netanyahu would face stiff opposition were he to try to make this last-minute campaign promise real, including from within his own political camp.
In December, Atty. Gen. Avichai Mandelblit urged Israel’s Supreme Court to strike down legislation intended to allow the state to expropriate private Palestinian-held parcels of land where some 4,000 illegal homes were erected by settlers as “an unconstitutional law, which is null and void.”
Many Israelis shrugged at the bombastic pledge, dismissing it as eleventh-hour electioneering.
Anshel Pfeffer, Netanyahu’s biographer and a political analyst for the daily newspaper Haaretz, tweeted, “Netanyahu saying anything to rally the right-wing base or an actual change of policy? My money is on the first.”
But the Palestinians, buffeted by two years of disintegrating relations with the Trump administration, which recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital with no mention of their claims to a future capital in East Jerusalem, and the complete severance of traditional American financial support, were quick to condemn Netanyahu’s vow.
In a statement, veteran diplomat Saeb Erekat said that “Israel will continue to brazenly violate international law for as long as the international community will continue to reward Israel with impunity, particularly with the Trump administration’s support and endorsement of Israel’s violation of the national and human rights of the people of Palestine.”
Palestinians, he said, would undertake the pursuit of their cause in all international forums, including the International Criminal Court.
Breaking with decades of U.S. policy, the Trump administration’s first two annual State Department human rights reports removed the word “occupied” in describing the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, a plateau seized from Syria during the 1967 war.
In its most recent report, released in March, days ahead of Trump’s surprise recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the State Department referred to it as “Israeli-controlled.”
Trump’s unilateral move, celebrated by Netanyahu, who flew to Washington for the announcement in the final weeks of the campaign, was condemned by Arab states and by the European Union.
Trump was in Las Vegas on Saturday for a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition.
In front of a crowd brandishing posters thanking him, Trump described his reversal of decades of American policy on the Golan Heights as a spontaneous decision undertaken in private with Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Trump’s former attorney and a longtime supporter of West Bank Jewish settlements.
“I said, ‘David, what do you think about me recognizing Israel in the Golan Heights?’” the president said, to cheers. “Like a wonderful, beautiful baby, he said, ‘You would do that, sir?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think I’m doing it right now. Let’s write something up.’”
While Trump hobnobbed in Las Vegas, Netanyahu, in the television interview, recalled the same event somewhat differently.
“I obtained President Trump’s declaration on the Golan Heights, which says that it is our territory forever,” Netanyahu said.
“I persuaded him to recognize Jerusalem. I will not divide Jerusalem, I will not uproot a single settlement and I will make sure we control all the territory west of the Jordan.”
Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.