Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke a diplomatic taboo on Saturday night when he promised to annex portions of the West Bank territory in Area C, in which all of the Israeli settlements are located.
“I will apply sovereignty,” Netanyahu said. It’s the first time since he took office in 2009, that he has used the word “sovereignty” when speaking of Judea and Samaria.
Netanyahu did so in an interview with Rina Matzliach on Channel 12, just three days before the April 9 election. Matzliach pushed him on the issue, asking why, as the leader of a right-wing government, he has not annexed the settlements during his last four years in office.
“What have you accomplished? Why haven’t you annexed [the] Gush Etzion [bloc]? Why haven’t you applied sovereignty on [the settlement of] Ma’aleh Adumim?” she asked.
Netanyahu responded: “Who said we are not going to do this? We are in the process [of doing this]. We are in discussions. We are discussing this and other things.”
Until this interview, Netanyahu had remained almost the only politician on the right of Israel’s political map who had not yet sworn his support for that unilateral step.
Even before Netanyahu announced new elections, his chief right-wing rival, Education Minister Naftali Bennett – who now heads the New Right Party – underscored the prime minister’s weakness on the issue, attacking him for failing to annex Area C. Those who want the Israeli government to take such a step should strengthen parties to the right of the Likud, such as his, Bennett said.
Annexation is the kind of unilateral step that could not have happened in the aftermath of the 1993 Oslo Accords under the tenure of former US president Bill Clinton.
It was presumed that any change to the territorial status of the West Bank – which Israel captured from Jordan during the defensive Six Day War in 1967 – could only occur as part of a final-status agreement for a two-state resolution to the conflict with the Palestinians, which would place a Palestinian state in the West Bank.
It would have been equally difficult to speak of annexation when former presidents George Bush and Barack Obama were in office, as both men held that settlements were a stumbling block to the peace process, and believed that the establishment of additional ones should be frozen.
But from the moment US President Donald Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, right-wing politicians in his Republican Party, as well as Bennett’s former party Bayit Yehudi, stepped up pressure on Netanyahu to apply sovereignty out of the belief that the absence of a peace process and Trump’s break with past US policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provided a unique window of opportunity.
Instead of pushing forward with such an initiative, however, Netanyahu thwarted one legislative attempt after the other, including drives to annex the West Bank or portions of it.
Over the weekend, the left-wing group Yesh Din published a data base with 60 such Knesset legislative attempts at either sovereignty or an initial form of de facto annexation during the last government. Some 25 of those initiatives were direct attempts to impose sovereignty over West Bank territory, including the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement, the Jordan Valley and the Gush Etzion bloc.
But none of those 25 bills were advanced to a final vote. Out of all the 60 initiatives, the only eight which passed were those that are seen as initial steps toward de facto annexation and dealt with the application of Israeli law to the territories.
In the final days of the election, however, as Netanyahu pushes to garner votes from smaller right-wing parties for his Likud, he has finally put forward a pro-annexation agenda.
If reelected, Netanyahu told Matzliach, “I will not uproot a single settlement. I will ensure that we will continue to rule over the territory west of the Jordan River.”
It is a line Netanyahu has often used in the past years. But on Saturday he gave it a new twist. “Now you are asking an interesting question. Will we continue onto the next phase? The answer is yes. We will continue onto the next phase: the application of sovereignty.”
Netanyahu was careful to distinguish himself from the centrist Blue and White Party led by former IDF chief-of-staff Benny Gantz, whose platform hints at the application of sovereignty to the settlement blocs. Blue and White has also promised not to evacuate the isolated settlements unless there is a referendum or the approval of a special majority of the Knesset.
“I will apply sovereignty, but I won’t distinguish between the settlement blocs and the isolated settlements,” Netanyahu said. “From my perspective, every settlement point is Israeli. We have an obligation as the government of Israel. I won’t uproot a single person. I won’t transfer them to Palestinian sovereignty.” He added that he had no intention of giving Israel’s “heartland” to the Palestinians.
There was no immediate response from Trump, who on Saturday delivered a heavily pro-Israel speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, with an eye toward shoring up support for his own reelection campaign in 2020.
The left-wing Jewish American group J Street denounced Netanyahu’s statement
, warning that it would lead to permanent occupation and a one-state nightmare.
“While the Trump administration has actively enabled and empowered Netanyahu and the settlement movement, all responsible American elected officials and presidential candidates must make clear that Netanyahu’s statement is dangerous and unacceptable – and that any West Bank annexations would bring about a major crisis in the US-Israel relationship,” J Street said.
But the settler leaders – who have advocated, lobbied, pleaded and dreamed of the moment when Netanyahu would bravely speak of annexation – were strangely silent.
The only one to proactively issue a statement was South Hebron Hills Regional Council head Yohai Damri.
“We have waited for many long years for the Israeli government to take this moral and correct decision. We are happy that this day has arrived,” Damri said.
“We call upon Prime Minister Netanyahu to apply sovereignty as his first step after the establishment of a new government,” he said. He also urged the premier to stand firm against any pressure from the Trump administration, particularly in light of the president’s expected roll-out of his peace plan to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
“This is the time to commit ourselves to sovereignty,” Damri said.
The Sovereignty Movement said it was cautiously welcoming Netanyahu’s words, noting the uncertainty of such a declaration in the heat of an election battle.
“This is a historic moment. Even if it was a promise made during the elections, it is still the first time that a prime minister of Israel views Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria as a viable diplomatic plan that can be acted on,” the movement said.
It noted that Netanyahu’s statements fell in line with early indications of what might be in Trump’s much anticipated peace plan. This would include a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria simultaneously with the declaration of sovereignty over the settlements.
Just last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the Arab League in Tunisia that he believed Trump would allow Israel to annex portions of the West Bank.
Under former Likud prime minister Menachem Begin, Israel annexed territory the IDF had captured in the Six Day War: east Jerusalem in 1980 and the Golan Heights in 1981.
Last month, Trump recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, a move that led to speculation that he could also support the annexation of some or all of the settlements in the West Bank.
Netanyahu has a history of making last-minute campaign pledges that he goes back on once the election is over and he is securely at the country’s helm. After the 2015 election, Netanyahu was able to reassure Obama that his pre-election statement, in which he appeared to dismiss the possibility of the creation of a Palestinian state, had been misunderstood. Netanyahu explained that he had simply provided an assessment of what was diplomatically possible and had not rejected Palestinian statehood.
With regard to the annexation pledge, the possibility that Netanyahu will actually apply sovereignty in the next government depends in part on who his coalition partners are and how stiff the opposition, if any, is within the Trump administration. It is likely that the right-wing parties would place a demand for sovereignty into any coalition agreement they might draw up with Netanyahu.
But even if Netanyahu uttered the word sovereignty as a pre-election ploy, knowing it would be diplomatically impossible to uphold, the fact that he said it at all speaks to a dramatic shift in the dialogue around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – from evacuation to acquisition. In that conversation, the Palestinian demand for a withdrawal to the pre-1967 line appears to be totally irrelevant.
In 2005, when former Likud prime minister Ariel Sharon wanted to make his mark on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he destroyed 25 settlements. Now, just 14 years later, the specter of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal feels so remote that Netanyahu feels emboldened not just to keep the settlements but to unilaterally speak of redrawing the map of sovereign Israel to include all of them.
Should Netanyahu’s words be a harbinger of things to come, whether in the coming government or a future one, then this Channel 12 interview will become a significant watershed moment when it comes to the contours of Israeli sovereignty.
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