Prime minister at campaign event says ‘as soon as we win’ Likud will apply Israeli law to parts of West Bank, apparently backtracking from earlier vows to annex areas immediately
By TOI staff
US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive for an event in the East Room of the White House at which Trump presented his Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday suggested that he would advance applying Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank only after the March elections.
At a campaign event in Beit Shemesh, Netanyahu urged attendees to help him get elected in the upcoming national vote, saying that a victory would allow his Likud party to gain approval for the Trump administration peace plan.
The remarks were apparently at odds with Netanyahu’s earlier vows to annex territory immediately following the plan’s release on January 28.
“If we win, when we win we’ll continue to make history. As soon as we win we’ll apply Israeli law to all of the Jewish communities in the Jordan Valley and in Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu said, using Biblical terms for the West Bank.
“We, the Likud, won’t let this great opportunity slip from our grasp. But in order to guarantee it, in order to guarantee Israel’s borders, in order to guarantee the future of Israel, I need every Likud member this time around to go out and vote and get others out to vote. This time we’re getting everyone out of the house, we’re not leaving anyone behind,” Netanyahu said.
US President Donald Trump’s plan envisions the Jewish state annexing key parts of the West Bank, including in the strategic Jordan Valley. The outline would see the eventual creation of a Palestinian state over some 70 percent of the West Bank, falling far short of minimal Palestinian demands and leaving sizable chunks of the territory in Israeli hands.
The Palestinians have firmly rejected the plan, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas calling it the “slap of the century.”
Netanyahu and other Israeli officials initially said the plan gave Israel the green light for annexing the areas presented to it in the plan.
Distancing the White House from Israel’s position, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner made clear that the US expects Israel to wait until after the March 2 Knesset elections before it goes through with annexing parts of the West Bank, however.
Kushner said in an interview published on January 29 that such a decision would take several months, and that the Trump administration would not support a Knesset resolution before the election.
“The hope is that they’ll wait until after the election, and we’ll work with them to try to come up with something,” Kushner said.
Asked whether the Trump administration would support an immediate decision by Israel to annex the Jordan Valley and West Bank settlements, Kushner answered “no” and elaborated that “we would need an Israeli government in place” before moving forward.
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on the same day suggested that it may take time before Israel can move forward with annexation plans, stressing that an Israeli-American committee to discuss the exact parameters of the ostensible annexation must be established first before Jerusalem can go ahead with its plans. The day before, Friedman had said that Israel was free to start annexing West Bank settlements right away.
Following the plan’s unveiling at the White House, Netanyahu said he wanted to bring the annexation proposal for a vote at a cabinet meeting days later, but Likud MK Yariv Levin said that there were still several bureaucratic hurdles to leap, including “bringing the proposal before the attorney general and letting him consider the matter.”
A Likud official speaking on the condition of anonymity appeared to pour additional cold water on the possibility of an imminent annexation vote, saying “the PMO is working hard to prepare the [sovereignty cabinet] decision. This is complex work that includes maps and aerial photographs. We hope to complete it as soon as possible.”
It is unclear whether Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit would okay such a move being made by a transitional government, which is largely limited from carrying out irreversible decisions.
“My point of view is that I need to help the government implement its policy and that has rules — restraint must be maintained during a transitional government,” said Mandelblit at an Institute for International Security Studies conference on Tuesday hours before the plan’s release.
“If a request is filed, I will examine it from a legal perspective,” he said in response to a question on whether he would allow the cabinet to move forward with annexation. “I don’t rule anything out. I will hear what the request is and what the explanation is for the urgency, and I will decide on that basis.”
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett announced a day after the plan’s release that he had established a special team to lead the effort to annex West Bank Jewish settlements, the Jordan Valley and the area around the Dead Sea.
Bennett called for the interim government to begin annexing parts of the West Bank immediately, before the March 2 elections.
Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, has said it would only support implementing the contours of the plan after the election.
Breaking with past US administrations, the plan envisions the creation of a Palestinian state in part of the West Bank, a handful of neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and some areas of southern Israel — on condition that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and Hamas and other terror groups in the Gaza Strip disarm.
The plan also calls for granting Israel ongoing overall security control west of the Jordan River, and barring Palestinians from entering Israel as refugees.
The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 war — for an independent state and the removal of more than 700,000 Israelis from these areas.