Defense Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday announced that he had established a special team to lead the effort to annex West Bank Jewish settlements, the Jordan Valley and the area around the Dead Sea, following the release of US President Donald Trump’s plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bennett called for the interim government to begin annexing parts of the West Bank immediately, before the March 2 elections, despite the apparent contradiction with the widely accepted legal view that caretaker governments are not meant to make such dramatic policy steps.
On Tuesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would bring a vote on annexing Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley to the cabinet on Sunday, though in the hours since then, other members of his party have walked back the timing of the vote, saying it would likely be delayed, in order to allow Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit sufficient time to weigh in on the matter.
“Last night, people around the prime minister announced that the decision on sovereignty [over the Jordan Valley and settlements] would come to a vote on Sunday. This morning we’re hearing a different tune,” Bennett said, speaking at the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies think tank in Tel Aviv.
The defense minister, who is head of the Yamina bloc of religious right-wing parties, said he would “not miss this opportunity” to annex portions of the West Bank.
“I will be clear: Whatever is postponed until after the elections will never happen. We all understand this,” Bennett said.
“Therefore, I am announcing this morning that I ordered the formation of a special team to apply and carry out the implementation of Israeli law and sovereignty over all Jewish settlements in Judea and Samara, over the Jordan Valley, and the hotels around the Dead Sea,” he said, using the biblical term for the West Bank.
The defense minister said the team would consist of representatives from the Israel Defense Forces, the Defense Ministry, various government offices and other security services.
On Sunday, the Defense Ministry refused to comment on whether it was making preparations for annexations in the West Bank, saying that the matter was “too political” to discuss given the upcoming election.
Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, who is one of the plan’s architects, told CNN in an interview on Tuesday that he did not believe Israel would approve the annexations on Sunday, “at least not as far as I know.”
Mandelblit said Tuesday night that he could rule in favor of a transitional government approving an annexation.
“My point of view is that I need to help the government implement its policy and that has rules — restraint must be maintained during a transitional government,” said Mandelblit, who earlier in the day filed an indictment against Netanyahu with the Jerusalem District Court in three corruption cases after the premier withdrew his request for immunity from prosecution.
“If a request is filed, I will examine it from a legal perspective,” he added. “I don’t rule out anything. I will hear what the request is and what the explanation is for the urgency, and I will decide on that basis.”
The Ynet news site cited an unsourced estimation that Mandelblit would likely say the annexation was legal, but point out legal difficulties in making such a dramatic decision. It quoted a decision from almost 20 years ago, when attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein told prime minister Ehud Barak that there was no legal impediment to holding negotiations with the Palestinians during a transitional government, but that the timing was nevertheless inappropriate.
Former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, also a member of Bennett’s Yamina, said Wednesday, in an interview with Army Radio, that “Mandelblit will not block a historic move, such as applying [Israeli] sovereignty in Judea and Samaria.
“All the restrictions on transitional governments have descended from court rulings that began 20 years ago and reins placed by legal advisers. It has no anchoring in the law,” she added.
Netanyahu told reporters in Washington that the US had agreed to Israel’s immediate annexation of “additional areas” of the West Bank that are adjacent to the settlements. However, he said that Israel will not apply sovereignty immediately, but during a second phase, at a yet-undetermined time.
“We need to do some work to define exactly [what we will annex],” he said.
Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, has said it would only support implementing the contours of the plan after the March 2 election.
Breaking with past US administrations, the plan envisions the creation of a Palestinian state in part of the West Bank, a handful of neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and some areas of southern Israel — on condition that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and Hamas and other terror groups in the Gaza Strip disarm.
The plan also calls for allowing Israel to annex settlements, granting the Jewish state sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and ongoing overall security control west of the Jordan River, and barring Palestinians from entering Israel as refugees.