LISBON, Portugal — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the possible annexation of the Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during their talks here, he said Thursday, adding Israel had the “full right” to do so. Netanyahu stressed, however, that such a move was impossible during a transitional period in which there is no government.
“We discussed the issue of annexation, but we’re not talking about timetables yet. These things are much easier when you have a government,” he told reporters at his Lisbon hotel after he met with Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa.
“That’s why it’s so important to have formed a government,” he added, attacking both Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman for sticking to their guns in talks for a unity government with his Likud party.
“I will try to prevent unnecessary elections. I will continue to make an effort [to create a unity government], but so far it’s not happening, because of Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu,” he said. “Two people can do it: Gantz, if he overcomes [Blue and White number two Yair] Lapid, and Avigdor Liberman, if he overcomes himself.”
Netanyahu also said he and Pompeo agreed to move forward with plans for a joint defense treaty.
Asked about the International Criminal Court chief prosecutor’s statement, issued earlier on Thursday, that she was “concerned” about Netanyahu’s vow to apply Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, he replied tersely: “It’s our full right to do it, if we decide to do it.”
Netanyahu said his meeting with Pompeo Wednesday evening was of “critical importance” to Israel’s security, partially because of their discussions about the Jordan Valley annexation and the plan to advance an Israeli-US mutual defense pact. More important, however, were their discussions about Iran, Netanyahu said, adding that an “imminent and immediate” threat emanated from the Islamic Republic, refusing to elaborate.
Netanyahu said that he and Pompeo did not talk about the White House’s much-anticipated plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Asked whether he believes the plan can be implemented, if and when it’s released, he replied: “I don’t know. They’re [the US] are waiting first of all to see what’s happening on the Israeli side,” referring to the ongoing political deadlock.
During the briefing, Netanyahu adamantly refused to address personal and legal issues, such as three separate corruption cases in which he was charged. He also declined to comment on the indictments in the so-called Case 3000 about the acquisition of German submarines, referred to by some as the biggest corruption case in Israel’s history, in which many of his associates face charges that include bribery. He also did not comment on whether he will ask for parliamentary immunity from prosecution or if he’s interested in asking for a presidential pardon in return for his resignation.
At the same time, he offered an explanation when asked why he’s not stepping down in light of his inability to form a government. “There is still what to do with me. Let the public decide. You believe that the people don’t want me, that the public is spewing me out? Let the people decide.”
Within that context, Netanyahu said the proposal to hold direct elections for prime minister to break the political stalemate “is starting to become interesting.” While he was still hoping to form a unity government, the idea of direct elections “must be looked into,” he said.
Netanyahu said also that “the need for governance continuity” required that he be first in a potential rotation agreement with Blue and White. It’s because of his intimate knowledge of the US that he can advance the annexation of the Jordan Valley and the US-Israel defense pact, he argued. “That’s why I have to be prime minister now and not later.”
Pompeo and Netanyahu last met in October in Jerusalem. According to reports, Netanyahu had originally planned to meet Pompeo in London, where world leaders, including US President Donald Trump are gathered for a NATO summit this week.
Netanyahu spoke with Trump over the phone on Sunday. According to the White House, the two discussed Iran and other unspecified bilateral issues.
On November 18, Pompeo appeared to pave the way for an Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley, and possibly other parts of the West Bank, when he declared that the administration would no longer consider Israeli settlements as necessarily illegal under international law.
The trip marks the first visit to Portugal of an Israeli prime minister since 2000, when Ehud Barak went to Lisbon to meet with then-US president Bill Clinton.
Netanyahu himself last traveled to Lisbon in December 1996, during his first term as prime minister, when he attended a European Council for Security and Cooperation summit there.
Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.