After Netanyahu vows major West Bank annexations, Bennett urges: ‘Do it now’

Defense minister calls for cabinet to vote on measure at coming meeting, then bring it to Knesset; Liberman accuses PM of trying to divert attention from his immunity request

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to annex the Jordan Valley along with all of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank if he wins the upcoming elections, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday pushed for a cabinet vote to move ahead with the plan already next week.

In a Twitter exchange the previous day between Netanyahu and his chief rival, Blue and White leader MK Benny Gantz, the two men appeared to dare each other to swiftly apply sovereignty over the Jordan Valley.

The annexation talk is “welcome,” Bennett wrote on Twitter “but it is, for the time being, just talk. The only real test is action.”

He called on Netanyahu to bring the annexation measure for approval by the cabinet at its coming weekly meeting on Sunday, followed by a vote in the Knesset on Tuesday.

“Only actions will determine,” wrote Bennett, who leads the Yamina alliance of nationalist parties to the right of Likud.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman speaks during a Friday Culture event in Glilot, on December 20, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman, a fierce rival of Netanyahu, criticized the prime minister’s announcement the night before, accusing him of simply trying to divert attention from his efforts to seek parliamentary immunity from an indictment in three corruption cases.

“You don’t care one whit about the Jordan Valley,” Liberman wrote Wednesday on Facebook. “The only thing you care about is immunity.”

Like Bennett, he called on Netanyahu to show his sincerity by immediately working to pass annexation legislation.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri on Wednesday said in a statement that his party would support such a bill and urged others to also support it, as “a historic opportunity has been created.”

He said Shas was calling on “all the parties to join the process, in order to ensure broad national agreement that will send a message to the world that the Israeli people are united on this important matter.”

Netanyahu’s annexation promise in a speech Tuesday launching his Likud party’s election campaign came hours after Gantz promised to apply Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley.

In what appeared to be the top centrist lawmaker’s latest effort to cater to right-leaning voters, Gantz said the area making up roughly 20 percent of the West Bank would remain part of the Jewish state in any future peace agreement.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz (C) speaks to reporters during a visit to the Jordan Valley on January 21, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)

Currently, the only way for Israel to annex to Jordan Valley with the agreement of the international community would be under a negotiated peace deal with the Palestinians, who claim the entire West Bank for a future state.

Right-wing officials and settler leaders largely scoffed at Gantz’s pledge. Netanyahu called the Blue and White leader’s bluff by urging him not to wait until after the election, but rather to support the measure if it is brought before the Knesset for a vote in the coming weeks.

Gantz subsequently issued a similar challenge to Netanyahu, tweeting: “You can apply Israeli law in the Jordan Valley in a cabinet decision within two hours, without any Knesset discussion. Let’s see you.”

Netanyahu continued the exchange of jabs, tweeting: “I expect full support by you and Blue and White for this historic move. Very soon I will put you to that test.”

After that exchange, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich urged Netanyahu to call a Knesset vote as early as next week to immediately annex the Jordan Valley, a call echoed by Bennett on Wednesday.

Hebrew media widely reported Netanyahu’s possible move as a potential trap for Blue and White, since if it supports the measure the party will be seen as being steered by the premier on major policy issues, and if it opposes it that would put the lie to Gantz’s Tuesday annexation announcement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud party campaign event at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem on January 21, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

However, a decision to extend Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley during a transitional government is likely to be opposed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who reportedly voiced reservations when the issue was raised ahead of the September elections.

Elections in April and September failed to break a political deadlock and produce a permanent government, sending Israel to an unprecedented third vote on March 2.

A key campaign issue is Netanyahu’s immunity bid, the process for which has been hampered by the political stalemate. Netanyahu — who faces an indictment on corruption charges, including bribery, in three cases — denies any wrongdoing. Opposition lawmakers are striving to see the immunity request debated before the coming election because there is currently a majority in parliament opposed to granting it.

Jacob Magid and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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