Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said he discussed with US President Donald Trump the possibility of annexing the Jordan Valley and appeared to suggest Washington was not against the step, which is strongly opposed by the international community and in particular neighboring Jordan.
At a groundbreaking ceremony for 12 new factories to be built in Ashkelon’s industrial zone, Netanyahu said there were “historic opportunities” that must be seized, and called on rival Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to join a unity government that would advance the bid.
“I spoke yesterday with President Trump, a very important conversation for Israel’s security,” he said.
“We talked about Iran, but we also talked at length about historic opportunities that stand before us in the coming months — among them are [establishing] the Jordan Valley as the recognized eastern border of the State of Israel, as well as a defense treaty with the United States. Things we could only dream of, but now we have the opportunity to realize them.”
“That’s why I’ve made Benny Gantz an offer — let’s realize these historic opportunities in a unity government that we establish right now in the format I’ve suggested. I’ve gone very far [in political concessions] toward this goal, because we must realize these opportunities.”
Netanyahu in September vowed that if reelected he would immediately annex the Jordan Valley, a swath of land linking the West Bank to Jordan that Israel sees as a vital security asset, in what was widely seen in Israel as a bid to attract support from right-wing voters.
Discussion on the proposed move has sparked fierce international condemnation, including an angry response from Jordan amid a nadir in ties between Amman and Jerusalem. Jordan reportedly considered downgrading its diplomatic ties with Israel over the promise.
Netanyahu increased talk of carrying out the measure after last month US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US was softening its position on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and repudiating a 1978 State Department legal opinion that held that they were “inconsistent with international law.”
Ahead of the September elections, Netanyahu also announced that he was negotiating a mutual defense pact with the United States.
Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, on Monday said he would oppose such a treaty.
“Blue and White under my leadership will not support an international agreement that will restrict Israel’s activities and the ability of the IDF to protect it from the threats it faces,” he tweeted.
Two rounds of elections, in April and then September, have failed to produce an elected government. Attempts to build a unity government between Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue have thus far failed to yield results. The Knesset faces a December 11 deadline to nominate a candidate to attempt to form a government or send Israel to an unprecedented third round of elections in a year.
On Monday, Netanyahu’s Likud party said he is seeking to serve as premier first in a rotational government with Gantz and his party Blue and White for only as long as it takes to make good on the promise to annex the Jordan Valley — about a quarter of the West Bank territory.
While Blue and White also supports annexation of the Jordan Valley, it has not said it would move ahead with it unilaterally.
Late last month, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that Netanyahu would be charged with criminal wrongdoing in three cases, including bribery in the far-reaching Bezeq corruption probe. However, due to the current political deadlock it may take several months before Mandelblit can even formally file the charges in court.
Blue and White has said it was willing to form a government with Likud, but only if Netanyahu steps down as leader. The party reportedly fears Netanyahu would use his time as premier in a rotational government to push through an immunity package and avoid criminal prosecution.
If no unity government is formed, new elections are expected to be called for sometime in March.
Israel seized control of the East Jerusalem and the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, during the 1967 Six Day War. Palestinians want the territory as land for a future state, with East Jerusalem as the capital.