Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday pledged to immediately pass a decision to annex the Jordan Valley — about a quarter of the West Bank — after a potential unity government is formed.
“The historic decision by the American administration from yesterday hands us a unique opportunity to set Israel’s eastern border and annex the Jordan Valley,” Netanyahu said in a Hebrew-language video posted on Twitter, referring a major policy shift Monday by the United States, saying that it no longer views West Bank settlements as “inconsistent with international law.”
Netanyahu released the statement minutes before entering a high-stakes meeting Tuesday evening with his chief rival, Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Multiple reports have indicated the leaders were having serious negotiations for the first time since the September elections amid intense efforts to form a unity government.
“I call on Benny Gantz to come together with me and with [Yisrael Beytenu leader] Avigdor Liberman to form a unity government, whose first item on the agenda on its first day will be the annexation of the Jordan Valley,” Netanyahu declared. “The nation and history will not forgive whoever misses this historic opportunity.”
“You cannot [annex the Jordan Valley] in a minority government that depends on Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh,” he added, continuing his scare campaign against the predominantly Arab Joint List party despite President Reuven Rivlin rebuking him for that “ugly” rhetoric a mere hour earlier.
Though former army chief of staff Gantz– who is tasked with forming a coalition but faces a Wednesday night deadline — has no realistic path to forming a majority coalition without Likud, he could theoretically form a minority government, provided Liberman came on board, with the external backing of the Joint List.
Netanyahu and Gantz have traded barbs in recent days over the prospect of a Joint List-backed minority government, which the Blue and White leader has neither endorsed nor ruled out.
On Sunday, Netanyahu’s Likud party organized an “emergency rally” that was aimed at “stopping the dangerous minority government that is reliant on terror supporters.” There, the premier accused members of the Joint List of seeking to “destroy the country.” He claimed, without proof, that the Arab MKs support the Gaza terror organizations that Israel fought against last week.
A report earlier Tuesday in the Makor Rishon website said Netanyahu had thrown his support behind a bill proposing to extend Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley shortly after Monday’s US announcement.
The bill was proposed earlier this month by MK Sharren Haskel of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, but at the time its chances of advancing — normally a lengthy process — appeared slim in light of the political deadlock and the fact that the country is currently led by an interim government.
But on Monday, Netanyahu reportedly gave approval to Haskel to request that the Knesset advance the bill in an expedited procedure.
Haskel said Tuesday morning in a tweet that she had “filed a request to hold a vote on the law already next week, with the prime minister’s backing. I hope that parties who have spoken of sovereignty [in the Jordan Valley] will stick to their word.”
“There is no reason this important decision shouldn’t pass in the Knesset plenum with a majority of 80 MKs,” she told Makor Rishon.
On the campaign trail, Blue and White vowed that the Jordan Valley would “always” remain under Israeli control. When Netanyahu pledged to extend sovereignty over the territory, Blue and White said it was “happy Netanyahu is adopting the Blue and White policy platform.”
Yisrael Beytenu is a right-wing secularist party whose leader, Liberman, refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition following the April elections, leading to the September elections being called. It supports annexing the Jordan Valley, and has proposed its own bill on the matter, which is very similar to Haskel’s.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday 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.”
“After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate,” Pompeo told reporters, the United States had concluded that “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.”
“Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law hasn’t worked. It hasn’t advanced the cause of peace,” Pompeo said.
The move angered Palestinians and was rebuked by many other countries, but delighted Israeli right-wing politicians and settler leaders who quickly called on the government to go ahead with annexing settlements.
Netanyahu and Gantz both lauded the US decision. Netanyahu said the decision was “righting a historical wrong.”
The international community overwhelmingly considers the settlements illegal. This is based in part on the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bars an occupying power from transferring parts of its own civilian population to occupied territory.
Israel rejects the position that the territories are occupied, maintaining that they were captured from Jordan in a defensive war and that the West Bank was merely controlled by Jordan, but never part of the Hashemite Kingdom or any other sovereign state.
Israel captured the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, in the 1967 Six Day War after 19 years of Jordanian rule, and later began settling the newly conquered territory.
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.