On Saturday, three days before a tight general election in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared on a prime-time news show and said he plans to annex settlements in the West Bank.
When asked why he hadn’t annexed certain Jewish settlements already, he replied, “We will move to the next stage, the imposing of Israeli sovereignty.”
Many viewed the remarks as campaign rhetoric aimed at nationalist voters whose support Netanyahu hopes to secure before Tuesday’s vote. Until this weekend, he had avoided suggesting annexation in these specific terms — a move that could derail any possibility of successful peace talks with Palestinians.
Nearly 3 million Palestinians and about 400,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank. The Israeli annexation of settlements on that land, which Palestinians have long demanded as the home base of their future independent state, could present a serious obstacle to a two-state solution to the protracted conflict.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki told the Associated Press on Sunday that “if Netanyahu wants to declare Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, then you know he has to face a real problem,” referring to the fate of the millions of Palestinians who live there.
“We will stay there,” Malki said of the West Bank. “The international community has to deal with us.”
Reuters quoted Palestine Liberation Organization official Hanan Ashrawi as saying that Netanyahu’s declaration would have repercussions beyond the election, calling it “the end of any chances of peace.”
Foreign leaders, including Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, called Netanyahu’s remarks an “irresponsible statement to seek votes.”
On Tuesday, Netanyahu will need to rely on his loyal, right-wing base to be elected to a fifth term. He has already faced some setbacks on the campaign trail, with Israel’s attorney general recommending on Feb. 28 that the prime minister be indicted in three criminal cases, including on bribery charges, pending a hearing in which Netanyahu can defend himself. The prime minister has denied all allegations against him, but his top competitor, Benny Gantz, the former military chief of staff, has campaigned on an anti-corruption platform.
After Netanyahu’s remarks Saturday, Saeb Erekat, the lead negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization, said he was “not surprised.” He accused the Trump administration of supporting and endorsing “Israel’s violation of the national and human rights of the people of Palestine.”
“Israel will continue to brazenly violate international law for as long as the international community will continue to reward Israel with impunity,” Erekat wrote in a statement published on Twitter.
In the past two years, President Trump’s administration has repeatedly stoked controversy in the region by breaking from Washington’s longtime policies toward Israel.
Last month, Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy in a single tweet, writing that it was “time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!”
Israeli forces seized the plateau from Syria in 1967, and both Syria and Israel call it their own. Trump’s tweet came just a few days before Netanyahu visited him at the White House.
Trump also broke with long-standing U.S. policy in December 2017 when he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The United States moved its embassy there the following May.