Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday vowed to annex not only the Jordan Valley if he wins the upcoming elections, but also all the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
The comments in a speech launching his Likud party’s election campaign, came hours after Netanyahu’s main rival, centrist leader Benny Gantz, promised to apply Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley.
Addressing a mostly young crowd of enthusiastic supporters at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center, Netanyahu said his government would “immediately” extend Israeli sovereignty over all West Bank settlements “without exception.”
He repeatedly denounced Gantz’s Blue and White party as “left-wing,” seeking to counter Gantz’s vow earlier Tuesday to annex the Jordan Valley “in coordination with the international community” if he wins the upcoming election.
In what appeared to be the top centrist lawmaker’s latest effort to cater to right-leaning voters, Gantz, during a visit to what he referred to as “Israel’s eastern protective wall,” said the area making up roughly 20 percent of the West Bank would remain part of the Jewish state in any future peace agreement and that previous governments which had been willing to negotiate over the strategic region had been mistaken.
Gantz’s statement was criticized by some within Blue and White. On Tuesday evening Gantz sought to slightly walk back his statement, telling his party’s lawmakers in a WhatsApp group: “Go back and listen carefully to my words, they have nothing to do with unilateral annexation.”
The only way for Israel to annex to Jordan Valley with the agreement of the international community would be under a negotiated peace deal with the Palestinians, who claim the entire West Bank for a future state.
Right-wing officials and settler leaders largely scoffed at Gantz’s pledge. Suggesting that it was nothing more than a bluff, Netanyahu urged the Blue and White leader not to wait until after the election, but rather support the measure if it is brought before the Knesset for a vote in the coming weeks.
“Benny Gantz, I expect an answer by the end of the day,” Netanyahu said in a statement challenging the Blue and White leader.
Gantz subsequently issued a similar challenge to Netanyahu, tweeting: “Try for once not to lie and here’s a tip — you can apply Israeli law in the Jordan Valley in a cabinet decision within two hours, without any Knesset discussion. Let’s see you.”
Netanyahu continued the exchange of jabs, tweeting: “Benny Gantz, I am happy you have finally decided to support my initiative to apply Israeli law in the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea. I expect full support by you and Blue and White for this historic move. Very soon I will put you to that test.”
After that exchange, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich urged Netanyahu to call a Knesset vote as early as next week to immediately annex the Jordan Valley. Netanyahu is reportedly considering the move as a trap for Blue and White, since if it supports the measure the party will be seen as being dragged by the premier on major policy issues, and if it opposes it that would negate the effect of Tuesday’s annexation announcement.
However, a decision to extend Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley during a transitional government is likely to be opposed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who reportedly voiced reservations when the issue was raised ahead of the September elections.
The premier also acknowledged at the time that for a transitional government to carry out such a move would be legally problematic. Ahead of the previous election, he vowed to immediately annex the Jordan Valley if he were to win. However, the results led to an extension of the deadlock that has now paralyzed Israeli politics for over a year and neither he nor Gantz were able to form a government that would have been able to carry out the controversial move.
The Blue and White leader has long asserted that he opposes any unilateral solutions to the conflict, and given that annexation would be a nonstarter for the Palestinian leadership (and could also risk ending Israel’s diplomatic ties with Egypt and Jordan), such a move would almost certainly fail to receive bilateral support.
Jacob Magid contributed to this report.