Jerusalem – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that he would annex illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank if he wins another term in office, in an attempt to win over right-wing voters.
He made the statement in an interview with Israeli Channel 12 News on Saturday, three days before the elections on April 9.
Reuters news agency reported that he was asked why he had not extended sovereignty to West Bank settlements since Israel had annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights without international recognition during the 1967 war.
“Who says that we won’t do it? We are on the way and we are discussing it,” Netanyahu said, according to Reuters.
“You are asking whether we are moving on to the next stage – the answer is yes, we will move to the next stage. I am going to extend [Israeli] sovereignty and I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and the isolated settlements.”
Mitchell Barak, an Israeli political pollster and analyst, told Al Jazeera he classifies Netanyahu’s comments as nothing more than election talk.
“Whatever happens in the election, stays in the election. I don’t think he has any real intention of [annexing settlements]. We don’t know. It’s highly unlikely that this will turn into policy,” Barak said.
“If [voters] see him embracing this policy, they may move to vote for him, but it’s nothing more than an election gimmick at this point.”
However, many Palestinians have been taking his words seriously, including Aida Touma-Suleiman, a member of the Knesset (MK) running for the joint Arab Haddash-Ta’al party.
On the eve of the last election in 2015, Netanyahu similarly made waves by stating that if he returned to office he would never establish a Palestinian state, reversing his previous endorsement of a two state solution.
Since then, he has done precisely what he said, Touma-Suleiman told Al Jazeera.
“Everyone thought it was election talk. But for four years he has step by step almost accomplished the mission he stated … In my opinion he is going to annex the settlements,” Touma-Suleiman said.
“I hope we’ll be able to see a government that’s more rational at least. I don’t believe that [frontrunner Benny] Gantz is an alternative. I don’t believe that generals will bring hope to this country but I can see the damage that Netanyahu is doing, which is long-term damage and I would like to see it stopped immediately.”
Over the years reports have highlighted the “creeping annexation” that has been enfolding, with the government also initiating legislative measures that sought to apply Israeli law to the West Bank and the 2017 settlement regularisation law, which retroactively legalises settlements.
Currently, there are some 600,000-750,000 illegal settlers living in about 150 settlements across the West Bank and East Jerusalem, built on land the Palestinians had envisioned for a future state.
Netanyahu has made significant achievements in the past two years.
Most recently during Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, DC, on March 25, US President Donald Trump signed a proclamation recognising Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, reversing 52 years of official US policy.
Israel has occupied the Syrian Golan Heights since 1967 when it seized the Syrian territory along with East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Many saw the move as paving the way for the subsequent annexation of the West Bank.
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During Netanyahu’s term, Trump also recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, a catastrophic declaration for Palestinians who had envisioned East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
MK Ahmad Tibi, running as the second candidate on the Haddash-Ta’al list told Al Jazeera that Netanyahu’s latest statement is a “direct continuation” of his declaration made in 2015 that he would never agree to a Palestinian state.
“An annexation of Palestinian land, he considers it an issue in the elections [because] it brings him more votes [among the right]. This is the real Netanyahu,” Tibi said.
“If he will lead the next government, it will be more right, more extreme and more ready to annex the land with Donald trump in the White house.”
There has been a surge of tenders for settlement construction in the past two years since US President Donald Trump took office, according to Israeli organisation Peace Now.
In 2017 and 2018 there were tenders for 3,154 and 3,808 settlement housing units, respectively, compared with just 42 in 2016.
However Akiva Eldar, senior columnist for Al-Monitor told Al Jazeera that annexing the illegal settlements outright would be difficult to do; Netanyahu’s statement may be just a last-minute spin like in the previous election.
“It [would be] breaking the status quo … it’s going to rock the boat. I don’t think Netanyahu is interested,” Eldar said.
“He’s very satisfied with the political status quo in diplomatic negotiations and the creeping annexation. He’s been making statements but doing it one by one, one centimetre at a time, changing facts on the ground without having to pay a price in the diplomatic arena.”