Is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planning on annexing parts of the West Bank?
After a statement he made Tuesday during a visit to the settlement city of Ma’ale Adumim, east of Jerusalem, the Palestinians and some Western media outlets are convinced he is. His office, however, was hesitant to discuss the matter.
“I support this law of Greater Jerusalem, which will enable Jerusalem and its communities to develop in many aspects. This is a great and important news,” Netanyahu declared Tuesday, sitting next to Ma’ale Adumim mayor Benny Kashriel at a Likud party faction meeting.
The legislation to which he was referring to was proposed by Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz and fellow Likud MK Yoav Kisch, and seeks to extend the capital’s municipal boundaries. If passed into law, the residents of settlements including Ma’ale Adumim, Givat Ze’ev, Beitar Illit, Efrat and the Etzion Bloc would be able to vote in Jerusalem municipal elections.
These localities would “become part of Greater Metropolitan Jerusalem. Similar to Greater London and Greater Paris,” Kisch told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.
A separate, new municipal structure, meanwhile would be created for the Arab villages surrounding Jerusalem.
The move would make Jerusalem’s official demographic balance significantly more Jewish and would “bring back Jerusalem’s status as a symbol,” according to the proposal’s preamble.
In total, the settlements in question are currently home to some 150,000 Israelis, the bill’s sponsors say.
The bill is reminiscent of an initiative led by former Labor and Kadima lawmaker Haim Ramon. Similarly concerned about the possibility of Jerusalem losing its Jewish majority, Ramon had called for Israel to separate from the city’s eastern part if it hopes to maintain control of its capital. However, his plan called for relinquishing control entirely of those Arab neighborhoods, which the “Greater Jerusalem” bill does not suggest.
Although Katz and Kisch, along with most senior politicians from the ruling Likud party, support applying Israeli law to the West Bank, they insist their “Greater Jerusalem” law would not amount to annexation.
“The difference is clear: this is not annexation or the application of sovereignty, but rather the inclusion of the localities surrounding Jerusalem within its municipal boundaries,” Kisch said. He then added, “From my standpoint, this is the first step toward enacting sovereignty.”
The Yesha settlement umbrella council expressed an outlook similar to that of Kisch. “The time has come to impose sovereignty on all of Judea and Samaria,” Yesha Council spokesman Yigal Dilmoni told The Times of Israel Wednesday. “This legislation is the start of that effort. Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem are ten minutes away from each other, so it’s only natural that they be placed under the same municipal boundaries,” he added.
Indeed, critics of the move call it a de facto annexation. Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, and if the city’s municipal boundaries were to be extended to include West Bank settlement cities such as Ma’ale Adumim and Efrat, they reason, there is no way other than to conclude that Israel has effectively annexed them.
The British Guardian newspaper, for instance, reported Wednesday that Netanyahu is now backing legislation “that would in effect annex settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.”
Palestinian officials, too, understood the prime minister’s comment as a statement of support for annexation.
According to US-Israeli international law expert Eugene Kontorovich, it is not so simple to define what constitutes annexation. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, it is usually understood as applying Israeli law to a certain area to which it has hitherto not been applied.
“Annexation really does not have a precise meaning. One can annex without applying one’s law, [for example] by saying this is our sovereign territory. And one can have one’s law apply to a territory without annexing it,” Kontorovich said, pointing to the British model in Hong Kong as an example.
Some nationalists abhor the term “annexation” because it implies that a certain piece of land is added to the state, which could be interpreted as conceding that Israel has no valid claims to said land.
By contrast, “applying sovereignty means we have a preexisting claim,” Kontorovich said.
Netanyahu has so far resisted all calls from within his political camp to apply Israeli law to the West Bank. He has also ruled out annexing the entire West Bank.
“I said it before, and I will repeat it here again: I don’t want to annex close to 2.5 millions Palestinians to Israel. I do not want them to be our subjects,” he told reporters after his first meeting with US President Donald Trump in February.
But some on the right argue that they are not interested in annexing all of the West Bank, rather only Area C where all 400,000 Israeli settlers live.
The number of Palestinians living in what amounts to 61% of the West Bank has long been disputed. Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the right-wing, nationalist Jewish Home party recognizes just 48,000 Palestinians in Area C, while the UN’s estimate stands nearly at 300,000.
On the other hand, the localities that would be affected by the “Greater Jerusalem” bill are largely inside the Israeli consensus, with many dovish politicians vowing they will be part of Israel in any future peace deal.
The Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday declined to clarify Netanyahu’s statement in Ma’ale Adumim. Curiously, the segment from the faction meeting in which he expressed support for the controversial legislation was omitted from the PMO’s English language readout, but was included in the Hebrew equivalent.
Speaking at a late September ceremony marking 50 years of Israeli settlement in the West Bank and Golan Heights, Netanyahu vowed that the Jewish communities over the Green Line will never be uprooted.
“Settlement is important to you in the same way that it is important to me, so I say very clearly: There will be no further uprooting of settlements in the land of Israel.”
But even such apparently definitive statements from the prime minister evidently leave room for a degree of confusion.