Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has upped the stakes in the run-up to a critical election Tuesday, vowing to annex Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank if he is re-elected to a fourth consecutive term. Netanyahu laid out the position that could very well mark the end to a two-state solution with the Palestinians as he continues to struggle to get right-wing voters excited about the election.
Netanyahu made the announcement during an interview on Israeli TV when a reporter asked why he had not extended Israeli sovereignty to the large settlements in the West Bank. “You are asking whether we are moving on to the next stage—the answer is yes, we will move to the next phase to extend Israeli sovereignty,” he said. “I will impose sovereignty, but I will not distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated settlements.” Netanyahu went on to say that the government has “a responsibility” for the Israelis who live there. “I won’t uproot anyone and I won’t place them under Palestinian sovereignty. I’ll look out for everyone,” he said. Some 2.8 million Palestinians and 400,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank.
Netanyahu’s last-minute election promise is just the latest reflection of how the vote on Tuesday has really become a referendum on the prime minister. If he wins, he will become the longest-serving Israeli prime minister but a loss would likely mark the end of his career. For now, the race is too close to call as Netanyahu battles for the top spot against Benny Gantz of the new Blue and White party.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki basted Netanyahu for his electoral promise. “If Netanyahu wants to declare Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, then you know he has to face a real problem, the presence of 4.5 million Palestinians, what to do with them,” Malki told the Associated Press. The number of Palestinians Malki cited appeared to refer to the total Palestinian population of the occupied West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
Malki also accused the United States of encouraging the prime minister by recognizing both Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights. The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall also notes that President Donald Trump likely played some sort of role in the decision. “His personal inclinations aside, it is unlikely Netanyahu would have floated so potentially disruptive an idea without a nod and a wink from Donald Trump,” Tisdall writes. “In the past, when Netanyahu claimed to have US backing for annexing West Bank territory containing the major Israeli settlement blocs, the White House publicly disavowed him.”
The Los Angeles Times editorial board notes that it “is hard to overstate how terrible a proposal this is,” adding that if Netanyahu does win re-election “the best that can be hoped for is that he won’t keep this dangerous and irresponsible campaign promise.” Even if he doesn’t go through with it though, “the very idea of annexation will rouse new Palestinian fury, as well as international condemnation,” writes the BBC’s Sebastian Usher.