Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said he has set a July date for when Israel will extend its sovereignty to areas of the West Bank, and informed his Likud lawmakers he has no intention of changing it, Hebrew media reported.
At the opening of his Likud faction’s weekly meeting at the Knesset, Netanyahu said there has never been a better time in the country’s history to apply sovereignty, which is tantamount to annexation, to these areas.
“We have an opportunity that hasn’t existed since 1948 to apply sovereignty in a wise way and as a diplomatic step in Judea and Samaria, and we will not let this opportunity pass,” Netanyahu said, referring to the year the State of Israel was established and using the biblical names for the West Bank territory.
Later, during the part of the meeting that was closed to media, Netanyahu told the gathered MKs, “We have a target date in July to apply sovereignty and we will not change it,” according to Hebrew media reports.
The move would be coordinated with the US, in accordance with the Middle East plan US President Donald Trump unveiled in January, which endorsed extending Israeli sovereignty over roughly 30 percent of the West Bank.
However, the entire peace plan has been rejected by the Palestinians, who seek the West Bank as territory for a future Palestinian state.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced last week that he was cutting off all security cooperation with Israel because of Netanyahu’s declared intentions to annex settlements and the strategic Jordan Valley.
There has also been increasing concern — and warnings to Israel — from the international community against annexation.
In recent days even Trump administration officials have appeared to seek to dampen expectations that Washington will quickly green-light the move without any progress in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
The State Department’s chief spokesperson said earlier this month that any action should be part of discussions between Israel and the Palestinians on the Trump administration’s peace plan.
Under the coalition deal between Netanyahu and Blue and White’s Benny Gantz, the prime minister can pursue annexation from July 1.
At the faction meeting, Netanyahu also warned that Israel could be hit with a second wave of the novel coronavirus, which, he noted, is still spreading in many countries including Brazil, India, Turkey, Egypt and Iran.
Listing the objectives for the new unity government, sworn in last week, he said,”We must prepare for a second global wave of the coronavirus that will be much more deadly.”
“We must prepare all systems for a possible second wave,” he said, including preparing equipment and continuing tests to identify those who are infected.
Netanyahu lamented that, though Israel’s death toll and overall infection rate was relatively low, “people think that there is no need to be tested and that the disease is now behind us.”
The first goal for the government he added, is “to restore workplaces that were lost because of the coronavirus crisis.”
Netanyahu was speaking to his Likud faction in his first public comments since he appeared in court on Sunday at the opening of his trial in three corruption cases.
He thanked lawmakers for standing beside him as he faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in all three cases and an additional charge of bribery in one of the cases.
“You strengthened me,” he said and received a round of muted applause from party lawmakers.
Last month, Netanyahu struck a complex power-sharing deal with Gantz. Under the arrangement, the prime minister can bring up his proposal to annex some 30 percent of the West Bank — all the settlements and the Jordan Valley — on July 1, when he will need approval from either the cabinet or the Knesset.
Until then, the government’s focus is supposed to be exclusively on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lockdown measures applied in mid-March to curb a spread of the virus brought the economy to an almost total standstill and unemployment jumped from around four percent at the time to 25% by the beginning of April as many people lost their jobs or were put on unpaid leave. For the first time in Israel’s history, 1,000,000 people were out of work.
As the rate of new infections dropped off the government has begun rolling back most of its lockdown restrictions. So far 16,717 people were diagnosed with the virus, and 280 died.