What happened: Israel’s opposition leader Benny Gantz said yesterday he would apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley if he leads the next government after the 2 March election.
- Gantz was visiting the Megilot Dead Sea Regional Council and said: “The Jordan Valley serves as the eastern border of the State of Israel in all future scenarios… following the election, we will work toward establishing sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and we will do so based on national agreement and in coordination with the international community.”Prime Minister Netanyahu responded by asking: “Why wait until after the elections if we can apply sovereignty to the Jordan Valley right now with extensive consent in the Knesset?”
- The Likud party launched their election campaign last night and Netanyahu announced he would soon apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea and apply Israeli law to all Israeli settlements: “The Etzion Bloc, Maale Adumim, Ariel and all the other settlements.”
Context: The Jordan Valley is a 2,400 km2 strip of land on Israel’s eastern border with Jordan and constitutes 30 per cent of the West Bank. It starts at the Dead Sea in the south and extends up to Beit Shean in the north. It has been under Israeli control since June 1967. Due to the harsh landscape; intense heat and lack of quality land only 11,000 Israelis and 65,000 Palestinians live there.
- Before the 17 September election, Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would apply Israeli sovereignty over all Israeli settlements in the West Bank and apply sovereignty to the Jordan Valley.
- Many Israeli commentators saw this as an election ploy, a shallow attempt to appeal to right wing voters, noting that during ten years in Government Netanyahu had not taken any steps towards applying Israeli sovereignty.
- Gantz’s statement has also been interpreted as an attempt to appeal to floating moderate right wing voters. Following the union of the left wing parties (Labour and Meretz) last week, there is no longer a concern that they will fail to win any seats and this potentially allows the Blue and White party to try to overtly win over right wing voters.
- Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz said: “Even Gantz has joined those who want to annex.…If this is Blue and White’s response to the hollow spin of the right—it shows their lack of confidence. People on the centre-left have nothing to seek in Blue and White.”
- The announcement also comes amid speculation that the US may publish its plan for Israeli-Palestinian talks ahead of the March 2 election. Gantz reversed his previous position on the US plan saying: “I hope that President Trump will publish the programme. It has been a number of weeks. A lot of dramatic events are taking place in the Middle East, I am looking forward to the publishing of the plan.”
- The Likud welcomed the debate over the Jordan Valley, as it highlights divisions in the Blue and White party and distracts attention from Netanyahu’s indictments for corruption.
- Any substantial move towards applying Israeli sovereignty will create tension with many of Israel’s allies, the wider international community and potentially ignite a real crisis in relations with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
Looking ahead: Netanyahu could get the Israeli cabinet to agree the Israeli sovereignty plan for the Jordan Valley as early as next week and put it to a vote in the Knesset. The move could be timed in parallel to distract attention from the Knesset debate next week about setting up the House committee that will vote on his request for immunity from prosecution.
- If the current interim government does take concrete steps toward applying Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank, the decision would likely be challenged in the High Court.
- Although Gantz’s speech has been interpreted as a clear promise to match Netanyahu’s plan, his exact words were more careful. He said he would ‘do so based on national agreement and in coordination with the international community’ which suggests first a proper Knesset debate and then attempts to coordinate with International partners, either of which could delay the plan indefinitely.