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Emboldened by Trump, an embattled Netanyahu pledges radical annexation move

“Netanyahu wouldn’t have dared to say what he did during the Obama, Clinton and Bush administrations,” said one Middle East expert.
Image: Palestinians stand at a fence separating the Jordan Valley and the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Aug. 21, 2019.
Palestinians at a fence separating the Jordan Valley from the rest of the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Aug. 21, 2019.Mohamad Torokman / Reuters file

Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge to begin annexing parts of the West Bank reveals the Israeli prime minister's increasingly desperate fight to win over right-wing voters ahead of elections, as well as his belief that the Trump administration would back even his most radical moves, experts said.

“Netanyahu wouldn’t have dared to say what he did during the Obama, Clinton and Bush administrations,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics. “Trump is a godsend as an American president for Netanyahu and the Israeli far-right.”

An embattled Netanyahu announced Tuesday that if he is re-elected he would “immediately” extend sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, an agriculturally-rich area that runs along the easternmost part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank near the border with Jordan. He made a similar pledge in April.

Image: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday. Oded Balilty / AP

He would then attempt to annex other Jewish settlements in the hotly contested region that was captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The West Bank is home to almost 3 million Palestinians and more than 400,000 Israelis, according to figures collated by Peace Now, an Israeli organization that advocates a two-state solution.

The prime minister described the Trump’s administration’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to annex territory in the West Bank and sought to persuade voters that only he could deliver the pledge due to his close personal relationship with the president.

“We have not had such an opportunity since the Six Day War and doubt it will be for the next 50 years,” said Netanyahu, referring to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war in which Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Syrian Golan Heights.

Since assuming office President Donald Trump has moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights, prompting the Palestinians to sever ties with the administration. And U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman — who has ties to the right-wing settler movement — reportedly indicated this year that Israel has the right to annex at least some of the West Bank.

“This is entirely being done because he’s not being stopped,” said Diana Buttu, a former adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and an Israeli citizen. “This time the U.S. administration is not a deterrent but is just a green light.”

Israel’s government informed the U.S. before Netanyahu’s announcement and does not believe that it rules out an Israeli-Palestinian political settlement, a Trump administration official told NBC News on Tuesday.

The official added that the U.S. was not changing its policy toward the West Bank at this time.

Most of the international community considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal under international law and an impediment to a two-state solution.

Gerges said the threat of annexation should be taken seriously.

“The Trump factor is very significant because Netanyahu is trying to use this unique moment in order to hammer a deadly nail in the coffin of a Palestinian state,” he said.

Other experts downplayed the significance of Netanyahu’s announcement stressing that it was an election promise that may well not be delivered and that the prime minister has previously made similar vows to annex parts of the West Bank.

But most agreed that it revealed a politician desperate to save his own skin who had seized the space given to him by a U.S. administration that is sympathetic to the Israeli right wing, as well as a region distracted by other developments to try to win over voters.

The country is heading to the polls on Sept. 17 after its Parliament was dissolved after an April vote in which Netanyahu failed to cobble together a government.

Image: Jordan Valley
Palestinian dwellings in the Jordan Valley, part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on Sept. 11, 2019.Mohamad Torokman / Reuters

“It’s election season, a lot can get said and he doesn’t lose anything. He’s not under pressure from the U.S. It’s a very permissive administration,” said Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.

“It’s good a regional climate as well as a lot of gulf Arabs are distracted with instability within themselves or Iran or Yemen. They don’t really have the energy to dedicate toward the Palestinian issue, especially if it hurts their relationship with the U.S.,” he added.

For Netanyahu, forming the next government represents more than just electoral success. The prime minister is bracing for expected criminal charges in a corruption case, although if he wins he hopes to pass legislation that would grant him immunity.

“This is a prime minister that is fighting not only for his political life but a life outside court and potentially outside jail,” said Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations at Regent’s University, London.

Netanyahu’s Likud party is being squeezed on the right and the left and is currently running neck-and-neck in the polls with the newly formed Blue and White party. Haaretz newspaper’s poll of polls suggests that Netanyahu’s Likud party is on course to win 32 seats in the 120-seat Israeli parliament, three fewer than he won in April.

He needs to command 61 seats to form a governing coalition — in Israel’s parliamentary system no party has ever commanded a majority.

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, said the annexation announcement was one in a series of election giveaways that were aimed at winning over right-wing voters.

“This is a prime minister who is going all out, taking all possible measures to save himself,” he said. “For Israel this is one of the gravest constitutional crisis it’s ever faced.”