JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to annex settlements in the occupied West Bank if he wins the upcoming general election.
His comments on Saturday (April 6) come just days before the closely-fought April 9 poll and could be seen as an appeal to right-wing voters, who do not believe in the feasibility of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
“I will apply (Israeli) sovereignty, but I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated settlements,” he said in an interview with Channel 12 television.
Settlements built on land occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War are deemed illegal by the international community and their ongoing construction is seen as a major barrier to peace.
Annexation could prove to be the death knell for the two-state solution. Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said Mr Netanyahu’s statement on annexation was “not surprising.” “Israel will continue to brazenly violate international law for as long as the international community will continue to reward Israel with impunity, particularly with the Trump administration’s support,” he said on Twitter.
In an interview broadcast Friday, Mr Netanyahu said he told US President Donald Trump he would not remove settlements or people as part of a future American peace plan.
“I said there shouldn’t be the removal of even one settlement” from the occupied West Bank, Mr Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 13 television.
More than 400,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements as part of Israel’s military occupation of the territory, where more than 2.5 million Palestinians live.
A further 200,000 Israelis live in settlements in occupied east Jerusalem, over which Israel has already implemented full sovereignty.
Washington is expected to unveil proposals for Israeli-Palestinian peace sometime after Tuesday’s Israeli election in which Mr Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term.
The Israeli prime minister was asked by Channel 13 if he was familiar with the details of the US plan, replying he knew “what should be in it.”
Along with settlements, “our ongoing control of all the territory west of the Jordan” River was a further condition set by the Israeli premier for any US-led peace initiative.
Mr Netanyahu said he informed Trump not “even one person” would be evicted from a settlement.
The US president on Saturday was cautious about the outcome of Israel’s upcoming election, calling it a close race between “two good people”. “How is the race going by the way? How is it, who’s going to win the race? Tell me, I don’t know,” Mr Trump asked the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas.“Well, it’s going to be close – I think it’s going to be close. Two good people,” he said, referring to Mr Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz.
The latest polls place Netanyahu and ex-military chief Gantz neck and neck, but give the former the advantage in his ability to form a coalition government.
While Mr Netanyahu has a close relationship with the US president, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas cut off relations with Washington after Mr Trump declared the disputed city of Jerusalem Israel’s capital in December 2017.
The Palestinians say the US government’s pro-Israel bias meant it could no longer lead peace negotiations between them and Israel, while US officials argue their plan will be fair. Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts have been at a standstill since 2014, when a drive for a deal by Barack Obama’s administration collapsed.
Bolstered by his reputation as guarantor of Israel's security and economic growth, Mr Netanyahu has spent more than 13 years as premier and opinion polls show that he could well win again.
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He would be on track to surpass founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel's longest-serving prime minister if he wins.
Mr Netanyahu is fighting for his political life while facing a dual threat in this year's election.
The possibility of indictment hangs over him while Mr Gantz's centrist alliance is battling his Likud neck-and-neck in opinion polls.
Some surveys have shown that Mr Netanyahu's party could win fewer seats than Mr Gantz's Blue and White, but still be best placed to form a governing coalition based on support from other right-wing parties allied to him.
Through much of the acrimonious campaign, polls have shown Likud and Blue and White with around 30 seats each in the 120-seat parliament - far short of an outright majority and necessitating a coalition, as is usual in Israel.
Mr Netanyahu heads what is already seen as the most right-wing government in Israel's history, and if polling trends hold, his next coalition could be even further to the right.
But analysts caution against drawing conclusions just yet, pointing to the number of undecided voters and the possibility that smaller right-wing parties fail to win the 3.25 per cent required to enter parliament.
"The Likud bloc seems to have a majority," said Mr Gideon Rahat of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank. But "it still can change because opinion polls cannot really tell you whether a party will pass the threshold".
Victory seemed sure for Mr Netanyahu when he decided in December to call for early elections even though they were not due until November this year.
The move by the 69-year-old known for his deft political skills was widely seen as a tactic to face the corruption allegations with a fresh electoral mandate behind him.
But since then, Mr Gantz has emerged as a serious contender.
He has been helped by his decision to ally with two other former military chiefs as well as with ex-finance minister Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party, which currently holds 11 seats in parliament.
The attorney-general's announcement in February that he intends to indict Mr Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust pending a hearing gave the premier's opponents a further boost.
Mr Netanyahu has employed divisive populism throughout the campaign in what critics say has amounted to the demonisation of Arab Israelis and others.
Citing a law passed last year declaring Israel the nation state of the Jewish people, he said recently the country was "not a state of all its citizens".
He has also brokered a deal that could see the entry into parliament of a member of an extreme-right party many view as racist.
But he has bet on his experience as well, portraying himself as Israel's essential statesman, while denouncing Mr Gantz's alliance as leftist and "weak" despite its security credentials and the fact that many of its policy ideas are similar to his.
In the weeks ahead of the election, the prime minister has met with Mr Trump, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital and Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, as well as Mr Putin's help in returning the remains of an Israeli soldier missing since the 1982 Lebanon war, have played in his favour.
"What is important is who leads, the diplomatic navigator," Mr Netanyahu said in an interview with Israel Hayom newspaper on Friday. "I'm working against Israel's greatest enemies. They aren't."
Voters could again be drawn to the right-wing leadership of a man some have referred to as "King Bibi" due to his long tenure at the top, using his nickname since childhood.
Mr Gantz, a former paratrooper who was armed forces chief of staff from 2011-2015, has highlighted his security background while offering a centrist vision on social issues.
He has argued that he can heal divisions he says Mr Netanyahu has exacerbated.
"I do think that the time for him to end his job in a dignified manner has arrived," Mr Gantz said in a recent interview.
When launching his campaign, he said: "No Israeli leader is a king."
With the election expected to be close, much will likely depend on post-poll negotiations to form a coalition.
"Whatever the results are, the formation of a coalition will probably be the most complicated one since 1961," said political scientist Abraham Diskin, referring to when it took Mr David Ben-Gurion months to form a government.
More than six million Israelis are eligible to vote in Tuesday's polls, which open at 7am local time (12pm Singapore time).