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Netanyahu offers West Bank annexation to right-wing voters ahead of cliffhanger election

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference in Tel Aviv. He vowed to begin annexing West Bank settlements if he wins national elections next week. (Oded Balilty/AP)

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday repeated his vow to extend Israeli sovereignty to large portions of the occupied West Bank if he is reelected, the latest in a string of campaign promises aimed at winning the support of right-wing voters.

Netanyahu said Israeli annexation of lands that Palestinians hope to gain for a future state would begin with the Jordan Valley, a swath of territory along the border with Jordan that many Israelis see as important for Israel’s security.

The announcement, which he said reflected coordination with the Trump administration, was the most substantive in a flurry of appeals he has made to religious Jews, West Bank settlers and others in the right-wing camp ahead of the Sept. 17 elections. Opinion polls show Netanyahu’s Likud party locked in a very tight race with the Blue and White party of former army chief of staff Benny Gantz.

The contest is so close that it could turn on Netanyahu’s success in wresting voters away from smaller, far-right parties, and in recent days he has been hammering at several issues designed to excite and alarm this modest, but perhaps strategic, constituency.

Last week, the prime minister visited the small Jewish settlement in the heart of the West Bank city of Hebron, home to roughly 200,000 Palestinians. Addressing some of the most fervent Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, he vowed that the city would never be “Judenrein” — the Nazi term for “free of Jews” — and pledged to extend “Jewish sovereignty” to settlements across the West Bank.

Earlier this week, in an address to English-speaking supporters, he cautioned that an election victory by his opponents could mean Arab citizens of Israel might serve as cabinet members. It was not the first time he had sought to mobilize backers by warning of political gains by Israel’s Arab minority.

Netanyahu on Tuesday returned to the theme of annexing West Bank settlements, where about 450,000 Israelis live in developments — ranging from large towns to remote outposts — considered illegal by most of the international community.

“In recent months, I have led a diplomatic effort to this effect, and the conditions have ripened,” he said. “This is a historic opportunity we may not have again.”

Netanyahu said his plan was being drafted in coordination with the Trump administration, which is expected to release its long-awaited Middle East peace plan sometime after the Israeli elections. There was no response from the White House to his announcement.

Israel has controlled the West Bank since capturing it in the 1967 war. Unlike in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, which were also seized in that war, Israel has never extended its sovereignty to the West Bank, except for some territory near Jerusalem.

Netanyahu previously promised to annex West Bank settlements, though he had not explicitly mentioned the Jordan Valley, before national elections in April. That vote produced a deadlock, sending Israelis back to the polls for do-over elections next week.

Whether his pledges succeed in influencing the election outcome could depend on whether voters find them credible.

“He’s expecting right-wing voters to believe that suddenly, after all these years he’s been in power and he’s done nothing in this direction — suddenly, a week before the election — this is the ‘historical opportunity,’ ” said Anshel Pfeffer, the author of “Bibi,” a 2018 biography of Netanyahu. “Obviously there will be some people who will swallow it, but it really smacks of desperation.”

Eugene Kontorovich, the director of international law at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a right-wing Jerusalem think tank, praised Netanyahu’s announcement but said credibility was still an issue.

“Promises to do it in the future are not so credible or raise questions about why it’s not being done now,” Kontorovich said.

Israel’s do-over election this month may yield another deadlock. Then what happens?

In some quarters, however, Netanyahu’s campaign pitch may succeed. Some settlers who previously supported far-right parties say they intend to vote for Netanyahu next week.

“We don’t have the right to build here in Hebron. He will give us the right to build, in places stolen by Arabs,” said Aouva Ohayon, 62, who migrated from France to Israel in 1985 and has lived in Hebron for the past two decades. Ohayon is an Orthodox Jew with six grandchildren and teaches in the settlement’s day-care center. She said she typically votes for the Jewish Power party but this time will support Netanyahu.

“Unfortunately, we have so many Arabs around us — and terrorists — but we have confidence in God, who protects us,” she said.

The Jewish Power party, whose supporters Netanyahu is courting, is controversial among many Israelis because key figures in the party have been followers of the radical right-wing rabbi Meir Kahane.

“If you would have told Netanyahu four years ago that he would one day maneuver himself into a situation where his personal and political future depend on supporters of Meir Kahane, he would have laughed,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the ­Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute.

Kahane was an American-born Orthodox rabbi and Israeli politician who advocated for Israel to adopt Jewish religious law and to annex the Palestinian territories entirely. His racist views ultimately caused him to be banned from the Israeli parliament, and he was assassinated in a New York City hotel in November 1990 by an Arab gunman.

Netanyahu’s remarks Tuesday were condemned by Palestinian leaders. Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, called on the international community to stop the annexation initiative before it “buries any remaining prospects for peace and a viable and independent Palestinian state.”

“Israel’s plan to annex the Jordan Valley, an integral part of occupied Palestinian territories, is manifestly illegal and merely adds to Israel’s long history of violations of international law,” Erekat, a former peace negotiator, said in a statement.

“Israel’s unprecedented culture of impunity, enabled by international inaction, is the only explanation for Mr. Netanyahu’s audacity in using annexation as an election ploy, and asking the Israeli public to facilitate yet another Israeli crime,” said Erekat, who lives in the Jordan Valley.

In his presentation Tuesday, Netanyahu called on Israeli voters to ask themselves whom they preferred to lead negotiations over the expected White House peace plan: him or his rivals from the Blue and White party.

Gantz countered by saying that “the relationship between Israel and the United States is founded upon common interests and values, and it is stronger than any prime minister.” But he also stressed that he has no intention of seeing Israel relinquish the Jordan Valley: “Blue and White have made clear that the Jordan Valley will be a part of Israel forever.”

The personal stakes for Netanyahu in the elections could not be higher. Pending a hearing, the prime minister faces indictments in three criminal cases involving fraud, bribery and breach of trust. If he remains in power, he may be able to win legislation in the parliament that would help him evade prosecution while in office. If he loses the elections, his chances for immunity from prosecution are greatly diminished.

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