Senior members of the ruling Likud party called Tuesday night for the government to annex all or part of the West Bank, running up against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stated commitment in principle to a Palestinian state.
At a Jerusalem conference entitled “Application of Israeli Sovereignty of Judea and Samaria,” a government minister and two Likud MKs declared the two-state solution dead and spoke of the legal and legislative steps needed to make the West Bank — biblical Judea and Samaria — a part of Israel proper.
An Israeli annexation of the West Bank, land the Palestinians claim for a state of their own, would likely be met with harsh international sanctions and rebuke, and is generally regarded as outside mainstream political discourse in Israel.
Despite pre-election attempts by the Likud to paint itself as a right-center party, several current and prospective Likud MKs have declared support for a so-called one-state solution, rejecting the idea of an independent Palestinian state.
The Likud and its Yisrael Beytenu ally have been losing votes in recent weeks to the Jewish Home right-wing party, whose leader Naftali Bennett advocates Israel annexing the 60% of the West Bank that is designated as Area C, where Israel still maintains overall control.
Speaking at the conference, the second of its kind in under a year, Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein said applying sovereignty to the West Bank would send a strong message to the international community, which overwhelmingly supports the two-state formulation.
“We would say loud and clear that we have the right — we applied sovereignty. Looking ahead, we can start searching for ways to co-exist. Of course we recognize that another people lives here and we need to find a modus operandi for living together,” he said.
Edelstein and two other Likud MKs who addressed the several hundred conference attendees in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood said that the annexation of the West Bank should be conducted in stages to blunt the international blowback from the move.
“I am always in favor of starting with a step in the right direction rather than sitting on my hands and not to do anything because I can’t demand everything I’d like to demand,” Edelstein said.
The far-right may attack a piece-by-piece approach to annexation, fearing that if Israel only annexes certain parts of the West Bank it could create the impression that it gives up on the other parts. Yet a slow approach is the only realistic chance to eventually attain sovereignty over the entire West Bank, the Likud legislators said.
Likud MK Zeev Elkin, who chaired the outgoing governing coalition in the Knesset, said Israel should take a page out of the Palestinian playbook, advancing piece by piece while never renouncing any of its territorial claims.
“The time has come for us as the state of Israel to start acting in exactly the same manner. We will try to apply sovereignty over as much as we can at any given moment,” he said.
He added that opposition could be worn down by the pro-annexation crowd repeatedly promoting its agenda.
MK Yariv Levin advocated a slow but steady de facto annexation of the West Bank, mainly by expanding existing settlements and taking whatever steps were possible to apply laws on Jewish communities beyond the Green Line.
“In this way, we will try, slowly but surely, to expand the circle of settlements, and to afterwards extend the roads that lead to them, and so forth. At the end of this process, the facts on the ground will be that whatever remains [of the West Bank] will be merely marginal appendages,” he said.
Last week, two senior Likud MKs caused an uproar when they stated that the party does not support a two-state solution, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech, during which he in principle agreed to a demilitarized Palestinian state, if the Palestinians recognized Israel as a Jewish state.
Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who is No. 3 on the Likud-Beytenu joint list, said “two states for two peoples was never part of [Likud's] election platform.” MK Tzipi Hotovely, No. 15 on the list, said the Bar-Ilan speech was a tactical maneuver by Netanyahu only meant to placate the world.
Faced with a debate about Netanyahu’s true position, and in the absence of a party platform for the elections, the party spokesman said he still supported a two-state solution, if Israel’s conditions were met and its security guaranteed.
On Tuesday afternoon, Netanyahu said the “diplomatic process must be managed responsibly and sagaciously and not in undue haste.”
But speaking to The Times of Israel on Tuesday evening, Levin, who is No. 17 on the party’s Knesset list, again insisted that Netanyahu doesn’t truly believe in Palestinian independence.
“Even when the prime minister spoke about the issue of two states, he didn’t speak about a state in the full sense. He spoke about a long range of conditions that he himself says there is no chance that they will be fulfilled in the near future due to the actions of the other side,” Levin said.
In the last Knesset, Levin was among a group of Likud MKs who tried to advance legislation that would have applied Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank. But Netanyahu intervened and no such bill was approved.
While he acknowledged that there are some strategic differences between Likud MKs, Levin said they were “essentially theoretical.”
“We fully agree and are completely united behind the prime minister’s position, which is to strengthen our foothold in the Land of Israel, to build in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria,” he said.
“At the end of the day,” Levin continued, “I think the eternal link between the people of Israel to its land is a proven fact, it’s written in the Holy Scriptures. There is no disagreement about that. There aren’t two Jerusalems, and there will be no two Jerusalems. And therefore, I have no doubt that at the end of the process what we saw here [at this conference] is a vision that will come true.”