Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly threw his support Monday evening behind a bill proposing to extend Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley — about a quarter of the West Bank — shortly after the United States, in a major policy shift, announced that it no longer views settlements as “inconsistent with international law.”
The bill was proposed earlier this month by MK Sharren Haskel of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, but at the time its chances of advancing — normally a lengthy process — appeared slim in light of the political deadlock and the fact that the country is currently led by an interim government.
But on Monday, Netanyahu gave approval to Haskel to request that the Knesset advance the bill in an expedited procedure, the Makor Rishon website reported Tuesday.
Haskel confirmed Tuesday morning in a tweet that Netanyahu backs her proposal. She said the US announcement was “an opportunity to promote my law for sovereignty in the [Jordan] Valley.” She added: “I have filed a request to hold a vote on the law already next week, with the prime minister’s backing. I hope that parties who have spoken of sovereignty [in the Jordan Valley] will stick to their word.”
“There is no reason this important decision shouldn’t pass in the Knesset plenum with a majority of 80 MKs,” she told Makor Rishon.
However, gaining sufficient support could face obstacles. The bill hinges on the support of either the Yisrael Beytenu party — which has refused to cooperate politically with Likud — or the centrist Blue and White, which before the September elections voiced support for the annexation of the Jordan Valley, but is currently at the height of high-risk political negotiations with Likud and others to form a governing coalition.
That means the timing could be very problematic for passing such a dramatic move via cooperation between Likud and Blue and White at a time when they cannot agree on forming a unity government. On the other hand, if Blue and White refuses to vote in favor of the bill, Likud could use that to bash their rivals and score some political points ahead of a potential third election within a year.
On the campaign trail, Blue and White vowed that the Jordan Valley would “always” remain under Israeli control. When Netanyahu pledged to extend sovereignty over the territory, Blue and White said it was “happy Netanyahu is adopting the Blue and White policy platform.”
Yisrael Beytenu is a right-wing secularist party whose leader, Avigdor Liberman, refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition following the April elections, leading to the September elections being called. It supports annexing the Jordan Valley, and has proposed its own bill on the matter, which is very similar to Haskel’s.
“My proposal is fully backed by the prime minister and I expect others to back it such as Blue and White, Labor-Gesher and Yisrael Beytenu, who have declared in the past that they would advance extending sovereignty in the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea,” Haskel told Makor Rishon.
Contrary to her remarks, the center-left Labor-Gesher party doesn’t seem to have previously supported a move to annex the Jordan Valley.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday that the US was softening its position on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and repudiating a 1978 State Department legal opinion that held that they were “inconsistent with international law.”
“After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate,” Pompeo told reporters, the United States had concluded that “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.”
“Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law hasn’t worked. It hasn’t advanced the cause of peace,” Pompeo said.
The move angered Palestinians and was rebuked by many other countries, but delighted Israeli right-wing politicians and settler leaders who quickly called on the government to go ahead with annexing settlements.
Netanyahu and his chief challenger, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, both lauded the US decision. Netanyahu said the decision was “righting a historical wrong.”
The international community overwhelmingly considers the settlements illegal. This is based in part on the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bars an occupying power from transferring parts of its own civilian population to occupied territory. Israel rejects the position that the territories are occupied, maintaining that they were captured from Jordan in a defensive war.
Israel captured the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, in the 1967 Six Day War after 19 years of Jordanian rule, and later began settling the newly conquered territory.
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.