(Bloomberg) -- It was practically an aside, coming in response to an interviewer’s question on a Saturday evening news show. But suddenly, after 52 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the issue of annexing territory there became an election issue.
Three days before Israel’s April 9 poll, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to extend Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank that are home to Jewish settlements if re-elected, giving voice to the long-held dream of Israeli nationalists and the nightmare of Palestinians who see the territory as the heartland of a future state.
Polls show Netanyahu facing a tighter race than he may have imagined three months ago when he announced his government had reached the end of its line and called early elections. Former military chief Benny Gantz teamed up with two predecessors and a strong opposition party to produce the toughest challenge the prime minister has faced in years. Netanyahu has been warning supporters of his Likud party that if they don’t turn out to vote, his right-wing government will be toppled.
Asked why he hadn’t annexed Jewish settlements earlier in his time in office, Netanyahu promised that if he won re-election, his next term would be “fateful.”
“I am going to apply sovereignty, but I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated settlement points,” he told his interviewer, suggesting the move would extend beyond the large settlement groupings that most Israelis want to retain in any peace deal.
More than 400,000 Jewish settlers and nearly 2.9 million Palestinians live in the West Bank.
It’s still unclear whether Netanyahu intends to carry through on his promise, or whether it was an election ploy meant to maximize right-wing support, in much the same way as he midwifed the merger of an extremist anti-Arab faction with an existing party so they could both win enough votes to enter parliament.
“With only three days left in a brutal election campaign, he and his competitors are all searching desperately for an edge to put them over the top at the polls,” said Shalom Lipner, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who has served seven Israeli prime ministers. “The annexation card -- popular among a large swath of Netanyahu’s supporters -- is the ultimate Hail Mary pass.”
Israeli leaders have resisted such a move for more than 50 years, well aware of the firestorm of international criticism it would draw if Israel were to annex West Bank territory it captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war, an occupation ruled illegal by repeated United Nations resolutions. Annexation, whether de facto or de jure, would complicate Israel’s relations with much of the world, including Arab states that have drawn closer over a shared antipathy for Iran.
And it would almost certainly put a chill on efforts to restart negotiations with the Palestinians just as the Trump administration plans to unveil its long-awaited Middle East peace plan. As it is, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a marginal issue in Israel’s election, with voters skeptical that the time is ripe or downright opposed to the notion of a Palestinian state.
“Such a statement by Netanyahu is not surprising,” veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Twitter. “Israel will continue to brazenly violate international law for as long as the international community will continue to reward Israel with impunity.”
Speculation has been rife that the Trump administration had paved the way for settlement annexation with its recent recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, territory captured from Syria in that same 1967 war.
There’s already been a shift under Netanyahu’s current government -- his fourth -- to a greater enthusiasm for the once-shunned notion. Opponents have accused the government of undertaking a creeping annexation through legislation, including by approving the expropriation of privately owned Palestinian land for incorporation into settlements. The piecemeal annexation of land, they warn, would eventually leave Israel’s Jewish minority one day ruling over a disenfranchised Palestinian majority.
But Netanyahu has walked back other inflammatory pre-election rhetoric before.
Gantz’s Blue & White party has acknowledged that he and the prime minister share a similar world view with regard to Israel’s security. But he told Army Radio that he opposed unilateral steps in the West Bank.
“I support looking into a peace agreement,” he said Sunday. “Nothing one-sided will occur.”
Nationalist and religious parties that would be Netanyahu’s natural coalition partners should he emerge from the election on top are likely to press him to carry out his promise. But with the race this tight, and smaller potential allies at risk of not passing the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the vote, it’s not impossible that Netanyahu and Gantz may put aside their acrimonious campaigns to team up in a broad-based government -- despite their insistence that they won’t -- allowing him to resist that pressure.
“The numbers and the desire to govern will lead to some kind of Gantz-Netanyahu union,” independent pollster Mitchell Barak predicted.
--With assistance from Fadwa Hodali.
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