Israeli PM convenes Cabinet in West Bank ahead of election

By Associated Press Reporters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is convening his final pre-election Cabinet meeting in a part of the West Bank he has vowed to annex if re-elected.

His government is meeting on Sunday at the Jordan Valley regional council rather than in Jerusalem. National elections are on Tuesday.

Mr Netanyahu has promised to extend Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and to annex Jewish settlements.

Palestinian Bedouin homes are seen in the Israeli-occupied West Bank (Ariel Schalit/AP)

The move sparked a cascade of international condemnations. Critics say it could inflame the Middle East and eliminate any remaining Palestinian hope of establishing a state.

In Israel, it was widely viewed as Mr Netanyahu’s latest campaign stunt to draw right-wing voters.

He has also alleged fraud in Arab voting areas, claimed to have located a previously unknown Iranian nuclear weapons facility and said another war in Gaza is probably inevitable.

In an open letter in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, Mr Netanyahu said with President Donald Trump planning to unveil his much-awaited Middle East peace plan, the conditions have “ripened” to apply sovereignty to all “settlements and areas of strategic and national importance” in the West Bank.

Seated in a makeshift tent and flanked by his ministers against a backdrop of Israeli flags, Mr Netanyahu said at the Cabinet meeting that he was proud to establish what he expects to be the country’s future eastern border and officially incorporate its settlements into Israel.

“It’s not just the eastern gate of Israel, it is the defensive wall from the east, because the Jordan Valley, together with the territories that will be part of Israel, guarantees that the military will be here forever,” he said.

“Instead of having a country that is only a few kilometres wide, it is a country with strategic depth and strategic height.”

The vow has widely been regarded across the political spectrum in Israel as the latest Netanyahu campaign stunt to appeal to wavering right-wing voters.

His Likud party is locked in a dead heat in the polls with the centrist Blue and White party and re-election seems to be his best shot at avoiding having to face pending corruption charges against him in a courtroom.

Mr Netanyahu hopes to form a narrow government of hard-line parties that will support granting him immunity from prosecution.

With his grand visions and fearful rhetoric, Mr Netanyahu appears to be replicating the campaign strategies that have previously secured him dramatic come-from-behind victories.

Over the last week, he has alleged fraud in Arab voting areas and unsuccessfully pushed for legislation to place cameras in polling stations on election day.

He also claimed to have located a previously unknown Iranian nuclear weapons facility, said another war against Gaza militants is probably inevitable and boasted his close relationship with Trump has resulted in the exploration of a possible defence pact between the two countries.

The Jordan Valley gambit looked to be a winning move domestically since keeping control of the territory enjoys wide backing.

The area is widely considered a key security asset because it provides a buffer zone against potential attacks from the east.

But by vowing annexation so close to the election, Mr Netanyahu has politicised the issue.

His chief challenger, retired military chief Benny Gantz, also supports retaining control over the territory but dismissed Mr Netanyahu’s announcement as campaign theatrics.

Israel captured the Jordan Valley, along with the rest of the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 war.

More than 2.5 million Palestinians now live in occupied territories, in addition to nearly 700,000 Jewish settlers.

Israel already has annexed east Jerusalem in a move that is not internationally recognised.

The international community, along with the Palestinians, overwhelmingly considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem illegal.

The Jordan Valley is sparsely populated by Israeli settlers, most of whom are secular farmers and far less ideologically driven than those deep in the West Bank.

Palestinians, however, say there can be no independent state that does not control the border.

With annexation they would lose a fertile area home to many Palestinian farms and one of the few remaining areas of the West Bank with open space for development.