What happened: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced yesterday that, if he wins next week’s election, there will be a historic, one time opportunity to apply Israeli sovereignty over Israeli settlements and to guarantee strategic depth to Israel by also applying sovereignty to the Jordan Valley.
- Referring to the expected US plan for Israeli-Palestinian talks, Netanyahu said: “Out of respect for President Trump and out of great faith in our friendship, I’ll wait before applying sovereignty over settlements until the presentation of the diplomatic plan of the president,” stressing, “maximum coordination with the US.”
Context: The Jordan Valley is a 2,400 km2 strip of land on Israel’s eastern border with Jordan and 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 8,000 Israelis live there, spread out over 30 small, mostly agricultural communities.
- Approximately 65,000 Palestinians live city of Jericho and several surrounding Palestinian villages and will not be included in the plan.
- In previous negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel has insisted on retaining control of the Jordan valley for an extended period of time in order to protect the Eastern border with Jordan.
- In response to Netanyahu’s speech a White House official said: “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.”
- Israeli media commentators believe the move was carefully coordinated with the Trump administration, even down to the language the Prime Minister used, and the assumption is that this move will be part of the US plan. Netanyahu is also believed to have discussed the announcement with US Defence Secretary Mark Esper in London last week.
- Netanyahu was criticised from across the political spectrum by his rivals. The right wing Yamina party dismissed the announcement as “spin,” with Naftali Bennett adding “these are only words,” noting that Netanyahu had made similar promises in the past, but not kept them. Yair Lapid co-leader of the Blue and White party said, “Netanyahu has had 13 years as Prime Minister and no-one stopped him from applying sovereignty to the Jordan Valley. It’s an election stunt and not a very impressive one because it’s so transparent. He doesn’t want to annex territory, he wants to annex votes from Smotrich.”
- Palestinians leaders harshly criticised the announcement, among them PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh who said, “Netanyahu is the chief destroyer of the peace process and any foolish move he makes will leave negative consequences on him locally and internationally.” Arab leaders also strongly condemned Netanyahu’s announcement.
- A Spokesman for the UN Secretary General said: “Any Israeli decision to impose its laws, jurisdictions and administration in the occupied West Bank is without any international legal effect. Such a prospect would be devastating to the potential of reviving negotiations, regional peace, and the very essence of a two-state solution.”
Looking ahead: Netanyahu had asked the Attorney-General to prepare the necessary legislation ahead of next week’s election, however he was told this would not be possible under a transitional government in the current time frame.
- Israeli legal experts have pointed out that Netanyahu’s exact words are ambiguous and it is unclear whether he is talking about annexing land, applying Israeli law to certain areas or just to Israelis living there.
- Yesterday’s announcement should be looked at through the prism of Netanyahu’s drive to attract as many right wing Israeli voters as possible to support Likud and help him to a 61 seat majority in next week’s elections.
- The Palestinian leadership will convene an emergency meeting to decide a response to the announcement.
- The US plan is expected to be published soon after the Israeli elections.