“Dramatic announcement,” or restatement of longstanding Israeli policy? Either way, Benjamin Netanyahu’s timing seems calculated for turning out right-leaning voters in the upcoming Israeli elections. The PM pledged to impose “sovereignty” over the entire Jordan Valley in his next term, assuming he gets one:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israel in a dramatic announcement on Tuesday that he has a commitment from the United States that, “if you elect me,” he will be able to instigate Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley.
Netanyahu had announced earlier in the day that he will make a “dramatic announcement” at 5 PM. It was later postponed until sometime after 6 PM. In the meantime, the White House announced that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will brief the press – alongside National Security Adviser John Bolton – at 1:30 PM (EST).
Netanyahu had earlier pledged to annex the West Bank settlements in an effort to expand his appeal among conservative Israelis. This goes farther in both claimed land and strategic positioning, essentially making everything except the Palestinian cities within the West Bank part of Israel. Netanyahu stressed the need for a defensive “belt” and pledged never to return to the 1948 border lines:
“We are on the eve of the elections. President Trump said he will present his Deal of the Century few days after the election and it is just around the corner. This presents us with a great challenge and a great opportunity to apply Israeli sovereignty to Judea and Samaria and other areas,” Netanyahu said. …
“There is one place that Israeli sovereignty can be applied immediately after the elections if Israeli citizens let me in. Today I announce my intention to apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea,” he declared.
“This will be our defensive belt to the east. It ensures that we will never be a country a few miles wide,” Netanyahu said.
In making the announcement, Netanyahu claimed that the US would help coordinate the application of sovereignty, although he added an odd caveat:
“I request a mandate to apply Jewish sovereignty to all communities and I intend to do so in coordination with the United States,” he said, adding that the U.S. would present its long-awaited Israel-Palestinian peace plan a few days after the election.
“If I choose, I will contain Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea. This will be the first step if I choose,” he said.
“If I choose” seems like a strange addition to a promise, and it suggests that this may be a bit more than an electoral tactic. It might be part of a PR strategy for the US as the Trump administration seeks to get Palestinian buy-in on its version of a peace plan. Netanyahu might be playing ‘bad cop’ with this “dramatic announcement” of annexing the Jordan Valley as a means to get the Palestinians looking toward Washington to head off such a change.
Thus far, the Palestinians are reacting exactly how one would expect, demanding international sanctions on Israel for their “crimes.” The Palestinian Authority had hoped to head off such a move by incentivizing the colonization of the Jordan Valley, the Palestinian PM announced three weeks ago. That prompted the Israelis on the Jordan Valley Regional Council to demand action from the Netanyahu government to stave off a major demographic shift ahead of any peace plan that might get adopted for the West Bank:
Jordan Valley Regional Council head David Lahiani and the right-wing NGO Regavim have long held that they were fighting to maintain Israel’s hold on Area C, including the Jordan Valley.
The Palestinians are now embarking on a campaign with regard to the Jordan Valley, because they fear that US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, known as the “Deal of the Century,” will include placing the Jordan Valley within Israel’s sovereign borders.
“The Palestinians are very scared of the Deal of the Century,” Lahiani told The Jerusalem Post. …
The PA holds that the Jordan Valley and all of Area C, which is now under Israeli military and civilian control, must be part of their future state.
That’s the acute context for Netanyahu’s announcement, but the “if I choose” qualifier might mean something else, too. It’s not uncommon for Israeli politicians to make statements of purpose regarding the West Bank during elections, only to deal more in reality afterward. That was seen in Netanyahu’s earlier promise to integrate the Israeli settlements into the state of Israel rather than leaving them operating under military control, but Netanyahu made a similar promise in April in the previous elections. It didn’t help then:
For most of his time as Israel’s leader, Netanyahu has refrained from making outright statements about annexation of the West Bank, despite pressure from those who live in the settlements, a comparatively small but politically powerful sector of society.
Similar comments during the previous round of elections in April were seen by many as another empty campaign promise. The April election ended in a stalemate three months ago when Netanyahu, whose ruling Likud party won the largest share of the votes, failed to pull together a stable coalition.
That might be the same this time around, especially since Netanyahu could have taken this step earlier even without an operating Knesset majority:
Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum, said “it was far from clear if such a promise will materialize.”
“If the prime minister wanted to, he could take this action right now with a mere cabinet decision. It does not require Knesset legislation,” Kontorovich said. “So it is unclear what the value of a mere speech is.”
All eyes will now turn to the Trump administration’s “deal of the century,” as well as the elections next week. Whether Netanyahu is serious about this may well depend on how many seats he needs to form a majority coalition — and whether John Bolton’s exit impacts the proposal coming from the White House. Bolton was an advocate for Israel retaining the Jordan Valley, and it remains to be seen whether others within the administration see that as essential as Bolton did.