Ahead of Israel’s election on Tuesday 9 April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that if re-elected, he will begin the process of annexing Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
Though popular with members of the Likud party and its governing coalition, Netanyahu himself had previously shied away from the move that would effectively end the possibility of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. The announcement comes as he faces mounting corruption charges, international criticism and a united opposition, and he is eager to rally support from right-wing and nationalist voters.
Asked by Israel’s Channel 12 TV why he hadn’t annexed the settlements already, Netanyahu was unequivocal in his response. “The question you are asking is an interesting question, whether we will move to the next stage and the answer is yes,” he said, according to The Associated Press. “We will move to the next stage, the imposing of Israeli sovereignty.”
“I will impose sovereignty, but I will not distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated settlements … From my perspective, any point of settlement is Israeli, and we have responsibility, as the Israeli government. I will not uproot anyone, and I will not transfer sovereignty to the Palestinians.”
Netanyahu’s announcement was met with immediate criticism from Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Riad Malki, who said that “the presence of 4.5 million Palestinians” in the West Bank would “stay there” if the Prime Minister were to carry out the policy.
Similarly, Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said that Israel is violating international law by annexing the West Bank.
Dr. Saeb Erekat: “Such a statement by Netanyahu is not surprising. Israel will continue to brazenly violate international law for as long as the international community will continue to reward Israel with impunity.. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/frKRBhujgU
— Palestine PLO-NAD (@nadplo) April 6, 2019
“Such a statement by Netanyahu is not surprising,” wrote Erekat. “Israel will continue to brazenly violate international law for as long as the international community will continue to reward Israel with impunity.”
“We’ll continue to pursue our rights through international forums, including the international criminal court, until we achieve our long overdue justice.”
Netanyahu seeks a historic fifth term
In seeking a fifth term as Prime Minister, Netanyahu is attempting to become the longest-serving leader in Israeli history, surpassing the tenure of national founder David Ben-Gurion.
Having briefly been Prime Minister in the late 1990s and serving in his current position since 2009, Netanyahu has fought elections on the idea that he is the only person capable of defending Israel against aggressors and critics both regionally and abroad.
In doing so, he has portrayed his opposition in past elections as weak, ineffective and too eager to compromise with enemies. Most prominently, he made an inflammatory gambit to stoke voters fears in 2015 by releasing a video in which he claimed Arabs were voting “in droves” as part of a coordinated effort by his left-wing opponents to steal the election.
Netanyahu’s governing Likud party won that election and formed one of the most conservative governing coalitions in the country’s history. The announcement of West Bank annexation is seen as a natural extension of those efforts.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be indicted for corruption https://t.co/u6lIMn34vW
— ABC News (@abcnews) February 28, 2019
In recent months, though, Netanyahu has faced myriad scandals and challenges to his power. Having benefited from divided opposition for most of his career, he is now opposed by a centrist coalition in the Blue and White alliance.
Formed by the Israel Resistence Party, and the Yesh Atid and Telem parties, former IDF chief Benny Gantz and journalist Yair Lapid are heading up the challenge to Netanyahu, with the final public poll ahead of Tuesday’s election showing both parties projected to receive 28 seats each in the Knesset.
All the while, Netanyahu’s attorney general – a former political ally of his – has brought multiple bribery and fraud indictments against Netanyahu. Criticising those charges as a “witch hunt”, the Prime Minister said in a televised response that “there is nothing to these (allegations).”
Further, Netanyahu’s unwillingness to compromise and his rejection of liberal values have weakened his popularity abroad. Nowhere has this been more pronounced than in the US, where the Prime Minister has formed a close relationship with President Trump.
With Trump formally recognising Jerusalem and the Golan Heights as belonging to the Israelis, Netanyahu has touted his relationship with the US President repeatedly on the campaign trail. In Israel, where President Trump enjoys the confidence of more than two-thirds of the nation’s citizens, that’s played enormously to Netanyahu’s benefit.
However, liberal Jews and the Democratic party in the US have begun to chafe at the alliance between the two, weakening what was once bipartisan support for Israel.
That’s led to some Democrats who are running for president refusing to appear at prominent Israeli lobbying group AIPAC’s 2019 conference. Ilhan Omar, a Somalian refugee who now serves as a congresswoman from Minnesota, also waded in, stirring controversy for her criticisms of Israel’s policies under Netanyahu.
This provocation is harmful to Israeli, Palestinian, and American interests. Supporting Israel does not have to mean agreeing with Netanyahu‘s politics. I don’t. This calls for a president willing to counsel our ally against abandoning a two-state solution. https://t.co/4ycYNowjzn
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) April 6, 2019
Further, when asked on Sunday 7 April about Netanyahu’s intention to annex the West Bank, presidential contender Beto O’Rourke was unequivocal in labelling the Israeli Prime Minister a “racist”.
A relationship with Israel “must transcend partisanship”, he said, “and it must be able to transcend a prime minister who is racist, as he warns about Arabs coming to the polls, who wants to defy any prospect for peace as he threatens to annex the West Bank and who has sided with a far-right, racist party in order to maintain his hold on power.”
Familiar tricks for Netanyahu
Whichever party wins the greatest number of seats in the Knesset on Tuesday will likely have to form a coalition to reach the 61 seats needed to govern in the chamber. Netanyahu is believed to be the frontrunner in that regard, because of the relationships he has cultivated with other right-wing and religious parties.
His vow to annex the West Bank is seen as a crucial part of that strategy. By making the announcement, it’s presumed he is courting far-right parties who will help him build a fragile coalition should his Likud party lose seats.
Further, by displaying a willingness to violate the Geneva conventions for the sake of Israeli sovereignty, Netanyahu has cemented himself as a fearless – if not shameless – leader. Even as he fights charges of corruption and increasing international scrutiny, he’s campaigning as he usually would, presenting himself as the only person capable of defending Israel.
אם לא נסגור את הפער, יאיר לפיד וגנץ יקימו ממשלת שמאל עם מרצ בתמיכת המפלגות הערביות. חייבים להצביע רק לליכוד! pic.twitter.com/aANcO5HZWh
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) April 6, 2019
That’s the direction he took during his interview with Channel 12, when he committed himself to annexation for the first time.
“I will not divide Jerusalem, I will not evacuate any community and I will make sure we control the territory west of Jordan. … I am concerned about the Israeli government, but I am also concerned about Israel’s security and I am not going to hand over the heart of the State of Israel.”