Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday he would extend Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and the northern Dea Sea if reelected. (For the latest election polls – click here)
Speaking to the press a week before the election, Netanyahu also said that the Trump administration's peace plan, which he said would be released days after the election, would provide a "historic opportunity" for annexing the West Bank and other areas.
The Jordan Valley stretches from the Dead Sea in the south to the Israeli city of Beit Shean in the north, bordering Jordan in the east. The 2,400-square-kilometer (926.65-square-mile) valley accounts for nearly 30 percent of the territory in the West Bank. Israel has long said it intends to maintain military control there under any peace agreement with the Palestinians.
"Out of respect for President Trump and out of great faith in our friendship, I will wait with applying sovereignty until release of the president's political plan," Netanyahu said. "As much as it is possible, I want to apply sovereignty in the communities and other areas with maximum coordination with the U.S. ... But there is one place where it is possible to apply Israeli sovereignty immediately after the election. If I receive a clear mandate to do so from you, the citizens of Israel.
"In recent months I have led a diplomatic effort in this direction, and the conditions for this have ripened," he continued. "Today I am announcing my intention to apply, with the formation of the next government, Israeli sovereignty on the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea," Netanyahu said, calling the area "Israel's eastern border."
A White House official said after the announcement: "There is no change in United States policy at this time. We will release our Vision for Peace after the Israeli election and work to determine the best path forward to bring long sought security, opportunity and stability to the region."
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Netanyahu's election rivals criticized the announcement, with Kahol Lavan accusing him of trying to use Jordan Valley residents as extras in a campaign video. Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh said the announcement was more than mere propaganda, but was rather part of the right wing's "vision of Apartheid."
The Democratic Union said that any unilateral moves toward annexation would harm Israel's security, adding, "It's strange that someone who is suspected of bribery, fraud and breach of trust remembered such a dramatic move less than a week before the election." Labor-Gesher Chairman Amir Peretz said the party was "proposing to apply sovereignty to the collapsing middle class and to the hundreds and thousands of children living below the poverty line."
Palestinian former chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said the plan was "manifestly illegal and merely adds to Israel's long history of violations of international law."
The Jordan Valley is a large area in the eastern part of the West Bank, with two sparsely-populated regional councils: the Arvot Hayarden regional council in the northern part of the valley, and the Megilot regional council in the south.
According to human rights group B’Tselem, the Jordan Valley and the northern part of the Dead Sea comprise 30 percent of the West Bank, covering 400,000 acres. Netanyahu is referring to a much smaller area that encompasses only the settlements. B’Tselem has data showing that in 2016, the Jordan Valley area had 65,000 Palestinian residents and 11,000 settlers. The settlements in this area are mainly rural, comprised of kibbutzim and moshavim. Many of the settlers there are not religious.
Tuesday was not the first time Netanyahu promised to start extending Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, or parts of it. Just two days before the previous election in April, Netanyahu said that he would move to annex the West Bank if reelected prime minister.
"A Palestinian state will endanger our existence and I withstood huge pressure over the past eight years, no prime minister has withstood such pressure. We must control our destiny," the premier said.
Earlier this month Netanyahu said that he aspires to apply Israeli sovereignty on all Jewish West Bank settlements. Speaking at the West Bank settlement of Elkana, the prime minister vowed that there would be "no more uprooting [of settlements]."
Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan party and the Democratic Union, a left-wing alliance, petitioned the Central Elections Committee to bar the live broadcast of Netanyahu’s statement, arguing it may amount to illegal electioneering. But the committee's chairman, Justice Hanan Melcer, struck down the petition.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh warned ahead of the announcement that Israel might declare plans to annex part of the West Bank as an election ploy by Netanyahu. "The land of Palestine is not part of Netanyahu's election campaign," Shtayyeh said at a meeting with the Spanish consul. "If he believes that he will win votes in the short term by annexing the settlement blocs, then he and Israel are the losers in the long term." Shtayyeh urged Spain and other European countries to recognize a Palestinian state as soon as possible, in line with the two-state solution.
On Monday, Netanyahu held another televised press conference, to announce that Israel has identified additional Iranian sites used to develop Tehran's nuclear program. Benny Gantz and other opposition leaders slammed Netanyahu for using sensitive intelligence for political purposes in his address.
Three months ahead of the April election, Netanyahu held a televised address which was billed ahead of time as a "dramatic announcement." In it he said he was willing to face state’s witnesses for the investigation into the corruption cases he is involved in, ostensibly to resolve conflicting testimonies.
Reuters contributed to this report.