(September 11, 2019 / JNS) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political acumen was on full display on Tuesday with the major announcement that if he wins re-election on Sept. 17, he will work to apply Israeli sovereignty over all Jewish settlements, starting with those in the Jordan Valley.
He implied that the move would be made in coordination with the long-awaited Mideast peace plan that U.S. President Donald Trump aims to present right after the Israeli election, saying that it will offer “a great opportunity, a historic opportunity to apply sovereignty over settlements in the West Bank and other areas of importance to our heritage.”
Never shy about making major domestic or foreign-policy announcements before a general election, Netanyahu went through with the move as part of a strategy to motivate his base by outflanking his opponents to the right, undercutting his chief rival, Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Party, which also supports retaining the Jordan Valley.
Likud Knesset member and former mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat told JNS that he not only applauds the prime minister’s decision about the Jordan Valley, but hopes that “this is the first step towards applying Israeli sovereignty to all of the areas of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank].”
Israel gained control over the West Bank during the 1967 Six-Day War, but it has never applied Israeli law to the region, which the international community considers “occupied territory.” Nevertheless, more than 400,000 Israelis now live in these areas, raising the question of applying Israeli’s sovereignty, at least upon the areas where Israeli Jews live. Under the 1995 Oslo Accords, the West Bank was divided into three regions, with most Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley in Area C, where Israel has full civilian and military control.
Israel sees the Jordan Valley—the most eastern part of this particular territory—as being of the utmost strategic importance because it serves as Israel’s border with Jordan to the east. While Israel and Jordan signed a peace agreement in 1994, Israel’s security establishment takes nothing for granted and views Israeli control of the border with Jordan as critical to Israel’s ability to defend itself.
Despite the fact that most Israelis view retaining the Jordan Valley as a consensus issue, Netanyahu was criticized from the right and left over the timing of the move.
Labor Party Knesset member Itzik Shmuli told JNS that “in order to win enough mandates to receive immunity and not enter jail, Netanyahu will promise to annex the moon as well.”
‘We are measured by our actions’
Similarly, the Blue and White Party criticized Netanyahu’s strategy, but not the policy. “The residents of the Jordan Valley do not feature in Netanyahu’s propaganda. Blue and White has made clear that the Jordan Valley is a part of Israel forever. Netanyahu drafted a plan to cede the Jordan Valley in 2014. We are happy that Netanyahu has come around to adopt the Blue and White plan to recognize the Jordan Valley.”
At the same time, Netanyahu likely sought to invoke a strong negative reaction from Israeli Arab parties that help bolster the Likud base, who object to many Arab politicians refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Knesset member Ayman Odeh, who leads the Joint Arab List, condemned Netanyahu’s announcements, saying, “Netanyahu is systematically closing the historical files; he is liquidating the Palestinian issue and eliminating the possibility of a peaceful two-state solution—that is, the possibility of peace.
During his announcement, Netanyahu showed maps of the specific areas he plans to annex and emphasized that the move would not absorb any Palestinians into Israel. The prime minister went as far as showing the access routes that allow freedom of movement for the Palestinians.
On the right side of the political spectrum, Netanyahu’s move likely sought to show right-wing voters his strength on the issue and ability to work with the Trump administration to make sure Israel’s priorities with any peace plan are addressed.
Nevertheless, Ayelet Shaked, head of the Yamina Party, said she hopes that the Israeli leader will follow through.
“I bless Netanyahu for his announcement and for talking about Israeli sovereignty, but I hope that this won’t be something which he simply says before elections,” she said. “At the end of the day, we are measured by our actions.”
Many to the right of Netanyahu, such as Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich of Yamina, went even further, criticizing the prime minister for empty promises.
“If the prime minister was serious about his promises, he would have called a government meeting right now and apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley as an immediate government decision,” Smotrich told JNS.
This is not the first time that Netanyahu has made announcements of this kind before an election. Whether it will have an impact on the support he receives in the ballot box will remain to be seen on Tuesday.