Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday that he would annex parts of the Israeli occupied West Bank if he is reelected, and made it clear that he would reject Palestinian statehood in any form, arguing that it would “endanger our existence.” The announcement, made during a television interview, was clearly made to attract support from Israel’s far-right, including voters at the polls on April 9, as well as smaller more hard-line political parties that could help Netanyahu form a coalition government if his Likud party fails to win a majority in Israel’s parliament. On Friday, final polls showed that Netanyahu, who is also facing corruption charges, was trailing his centrist challenger Benny Gantz.
Regarding just how much, if not all, of the West Bank Netanyahu would annex, he promised to “extend sovereignty” over all Israeli settlements in the territory, regardless of how isolated they were. Beyond that, he seemed to imply Israel was entitled to do whatever it wants, and that no Israeli would ever be subject to Palestinian sovereignty.
It is also possible that Netanyahu is making an empty election-eve promise that he’ll later find some reason to back out of. But even if that is the case, his wide-reaching rhetoric won’t soon be forgotten, and the same political forces which have made Netanyahu embrace harder and harder lines will remain.
Roughly 2.8 million Palestinians live in the West Bank under the control of the Israeli military, and some 400,000 Israelis live in the territory in settlements which are illegal under international law — as would be their annexation by Israel, since the territory was acquired by war. The settlements have also been the most contentious sticking point in the peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and the talks have remained stalled since 2014. Pro-settler political forces in Israel, meanwhile, have continued to gain influence and seek the annexation of the West Bank settlements. Ten years ago, Netanyahu was one of the politicians who rejected that minority view and supported a two-state solution.
A lot has changed since then, particularly in the White House, where a new administration has taken a starkly different stance to Israel than its predecessor. President Trump and his administration’s pro-Netanyahu policies have enabled and emboldened the Israeli leader and his rightward lurch, and that definitely includes the West Bank vow. On Saturday, Netanyahu boasted that Trump’s recognition of Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the Golan Heights region — itself an unprecedented break with decades of U.S. policy — was proof that the U.S. would back him and the West Bank annexation. According to one news report, Netanyahu didn’t even consider asserting sovereignty over the West Bank settlements until after Trump’s Golan Heights decision, and he was certain Trump “would give him backing and legitimization” for the subsequent move once the long-expected U.S. peace proposal was released and inevitably rejected by the Palestinians.
Palestinian negotiators have boycotted contact with the Trump administration since it, in another break with longtime policy, moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognized the city as the country’s capital, enraging Palestinians, who also consider the city their capital. It’s not clear what Trump himself understands about the region’s history, especially after his speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition on Saturday:
“Such a statement by Netanyahu is not surprising,” Dr. Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian official, said in response to the prime minister’s comments on Saturday. “Israel will continue to brazenly violate international law for as long as the international community will continue to reward Israel with impunity, particularly with the Trump administration’s support and endorsement of Israel’s violation of the national and human rights of the people of Palestine.”
Trump has teased the long-promised U.S. peace proposal as the “deal of the century,” but it will undoubtedly be as Netanyahu-sided as everything else the Trump administration has done when it comes to Israel. And if Netanyahu wins reelection to his fourth consecutive term on Tuesday, and with Trump’s blessing, goes forward with annexing the West Bank settlements, the two-state solution will almost certainly be dead for good.