Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main election challenger Benny Gantz on Sunday condemned the premier’s controversial pledge to extend Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements, calling it an “irresponsible” bid for votes.
Netanyahu said late Saturday he planned to apply sovereignty over at all West Bank settlements.
His remarks were widely seen as an appeal to right-wing voters ahead of what is expected to be a close election on Tuesday.
Gantz, the former military chief whose centrist Blue and White alliance has posed a stiff challenge to Netanyahu, condemned the premier’s remarks in an interview with the Ynet news site.
“Why not ask how it is that for 13 years Netanyahu could have annexed and didn’t?” said Gantz, in reference to Netanyahu’s time as premier.
“I think that releasing a strategic and historic decision in an election campaign bubble is not serious and (is) irresponsible.”
Pressed on his personal position, Gantz said he opposed “unilateral” moves. “We said we will strive for a regionally and globally backed peace agreement while maintaining our basic principles.”
Those principles include keeping security control of the Jordan Valley, parts of which are in the West Bank, and maintaining the large settlement blocs in the West Bank.
Gantz has in the past signaled openness to withdrawing at least some settlers from other areas.
He labeled Netanyahu’s remarks as “a meaningless statement.”
“It’s a shame to play with people like that,” he said.
Netanyahu has promoted Jewish settlement expansion in his four terms as prime minister, but until now refrained from voicing support for West Bank annexation.
It would mark a dramatic shift for Netanyahu, ahead of Tuesday’s balloting. Annexing settlements would all but end any final chances for a two-state solution with the Palestinians and potentially push the sides toward a single, binational state.
Netanyahu’s campaign pledge drew swift condemnation from Palestinians.
Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Jordan that Netanyahu would face a “real problem” if he follows through with annexing settlements.
“If Netanyahu wants to declare Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, then you know he has to face a real problem, the presence of 4.5 million Palestinians, what to do with them,” Malki said, apparently referring to the combined Palestinian population of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
Malki said Israel cannot expel the Palestinians. “We will stay there,” he said. “The international community has to deal with us.”
He accused the US of encouraging Netanyahu by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and, more recently, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
On Saturday, senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said Netanyahu’s statement on annexation was “not surprising,” and hinted such a move could trigger an appeal to the International Criminal Court.
“Israel will continue to brazenly violate international law for as long as the international community will continue to reward Israel with impunity, particularly with the Trump administration’s support,” he said on Twitter.