Facing a re-run election on September 17, embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to extend his country’s sovereignty over a large swath of the West Bank — a move that if implemented would deal a mortal blow to the prospect of a two State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Netanyahu has a history of making dramatic plays to his right wing base in the run up to elections, what’s surprising is how little his rival candidate Benny Gantz, has pushed back on the idea of annexation.
Standing before an easel-mounted map late on Tuesday, Netanyahu promised to “apply Israeli sovereignty” over the Jordan Valley and Northern Dead Sea “immediately after the election,” should he win. He also said he would look to apply Israeli sovereignty over all West Bank settlements in co-ordination with the U.S. It was a significant expansion of his pledge, made days before Israelis took to the polls in April, to annex parts of the West Bank.
Netanyahu’s map depicted the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea—which comprises almost one third of the occupied West Bank—mostly shaded in blue to represent what he said would constitute “Israel’s eastern border” with Jordan. Annexing the shaded portion sometimes referred to as Area C would mean Israeli land would completely encircle any future Palestinian state. “We haven’t had this kind of opportunity since the six-day war [of 1967] and may not have it again for another 50 years,” the Prime Minister said.
Palestinian leaders, liberal American Jewish organizations, and Jordan’s Foreign Minister have all condemned Netanyahu’s plan, the latter warning it would “push the whole region towards violence” and calling the plan “a serious escalation that undermines all peace efforts.” U.N. chief Antonio Guterres said Netanyahu’s plan would be “devastating” to the potential for regional peace and constitute a violation of international law. The Israel Policy Forum (IFP), a Jewish American organization that advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict said in a statement that annexation, no matter how partial, “would have disastrous consequences for Israel, its security, and its status as a Jewish and democratic state.”
However, Netanyahu’s main election opponent, Benny Gantz and his Blue and White party issued no such condemnation and instead claimed ownership of the origin of the plan. “Blue and White have made clear that the Jordan Valley is part of Israel forever. Netanyahu drafted a plan to cede the Jordan Valley in 2014,” the party said in a statement shortly after Netanyahu’s announcement. “We are happy that the Prime Minister has come around to adopt the Blue and White plan to recognize the Jordan valley.”
Gantz, a retired Israel Defense Force (IDF) general, went on to describe Netanyahu’s vow as spin designed to divert the electorate’s attention from Gaza rocket attacks. He called it an “empty promise” and said that he would replace with “actions and deeds.” It was not immediately clear what action Gantz intended to take on the Jordan Valley, and he did not use the word annexation or sovereignty.
The timing of Netanyahu’s announcement so close to elections gives credence to Gantz’s claim that it is spin: fulfilling a long held ambition of some Israelis who see the occupied Palestinian territories as part of biblical Israel. Facing a shrinking coalition after failing to form a government in May and three corruption charges on which Israel’s attorney general said he would indict Netanyahu pending a hearing, the prime minister needs hard right support to bolster his chances of political survival. But Gantz’s Blue and White’s ambiguous response will “at a minimum” be interpreted as “not opposing [Netanyahu’s] annexation plans” says IPF policy director Michael Koplow, even if it falls short of giving them explicit assent.
Some 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, which Israel has controlled since it fought a war with its Arab neighbors in 1967. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis also populate West Bank settlements, which the overwhelming majority of the international community considers illegal. The Trump Administration is yet to comment publicly on Netanyahu’s hint that its peace plan would green light annexing the Jordan Valley, but precedent suggests it might.
Trump broke with decades of U.S. policy to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the American embassy to the city Palestinians also regard as their future capital. And shortly before Israel’s April elections, Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a rocky plateau Israel also captured in the war of 1967. In a June interview with The New York Times U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman has said Israel has “the right” to annex at least some of the West Bank.
In his announcement Tuesday, Netanyahu said the Trump Administration’s peace plan, which he said would be released days after the election, would provide a “historic opportunity” for annexation. Polling data from the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute indicates that 48% of Jewish Israelis and 11% of Arab Israelis would favor the extension of sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea—sometimes known as Area C—if such a move if it were supported by Trump and his administration.
Gantz’s position is complicated by the fact that, like Netanyahu’s Likud party, he advocates Israel maintaining security control over the Jordan Valley. In an election season, effectively distinguishing security control from political control, in the form of annexation, is difficult, says IPF’s Koplow, and opposing Netanyahu’s statement runs the risk of conveying to the electorate that his party is willing to cede security control of the Jordan Valley. Nonetheless, Gantz’s ambiguity “was not very smart politics,” he adds. It’s unlikely to win over right-wingers drawn to ardently pro-annexationist parties, while at the same time turning those who oppose annexation away from his Centrist Blue and White party.
On Monday, Gantz told an audience in Tel Aviv that he would ideally form a unity government including Likud, the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu and “maybe [center-left] Labor,” bolstering the perception that Blue and White differs from Likud in terms of personality rather than policy.
For those on the political left, Gantz’s stance is symptomatic of the dearth of serious opposition to the politics Netanyahu has engendered. The Prime Minister “wants to annex and then create a de jure Apartheid and Gantz wants a permanent occupation” says Avener Gvaryahu, CEO of Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers that advocates for an end to the occupation. “But both are basically saying there will not be an independent Palestinian state.”