Three Israeli rightwing parties, including two that are expected to be part of the next government after elections this month, are talking seriously about annexing all or part of the occupied West Bank.
Seized by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, the West Bank is now home to hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers, as well as about 1.7 million Palestinians.
Talk of annexing the territory, as Israel did with east Jerusalem — in a move never recognised by the international community — is not new.
But as rightwing parties battle for the settler vote ahead of the January 22 elections, the idea is being discussed increasingly seriously by mainstream parties.
On Tuesday, candidates from three factions, including the Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, debated the issue before an audience dominated by settlers.
“We must begin to talk about it because this question will, I hope, be the order of the day for the next government,” Netanyahu’s information minister Yuli Edelstein told AFP.
“We have no partners on the Palestinian side with whom to make peace, so we must consider an alternative,” added Edelstein, a Netanyahu confidant.
Annexation of the entire West Bank is not part of the Likud party platform, but Edelstein’s views are shared by a number of the party’s electoral list, which skews to the right wing of the party.
“Our historic right to this region should be cemented by the application of Israeli law in Judea and Samaria (West Bank),” Likud deputy Yariv Levin said.
Annexation has never been a Likud policy, but is now increasingly mentioned by its representatives, as well as those from the rival national religious Jewish Home party.
“No one has talked about it for five years and now it could be a subject of debate in the next parliamentary session,” said Yehuda Glick, a rightwing activist who helped organise the Tuesday discussion.
———– The settler vote ————–
For Jewish Home, the decision to adopt the annexation policy is directly linked to its new leader, Naftali Bennett, who is being credited with the formerly tiny faction’s meteoric rise in the polls.
He is the author of the “Bennett Plan,” which he promoted before joining Jewish Home, a roadmap for the annexation of the 60 percent of the West Bank designated as Area C, where Israel has administrative and security control.
The area includes Israeli settlements, but is also home to around 150,000 Palestinians.
The extreme rightwing Otzma LeyIsrael (Strength to Israel) party advocates the annexation of the entire West Bank.
“We will present a project for a proposed law to annex all of Judea and Samaria and the Jordan Valley in the next Knesset,” said Aryeh Eldad, who heads the party’s list.
Edelstein is more cautious, and warns “there are many necessary steps before the annexation, because doing it won’t solve the problem of the territories.”
“We have to create an atmosphere in the international community to be able carry out this annexation bit-by-bit,” he said.
The organisers of the debate estimate that 73 percent of those voting for Likud, Jewish Home or Otzma LeyIsrael favour annexing the West Bank, either in full or in part.
Many of those are settlers, whose votes are up-for-grabs and the subject of a fierce battle between Likud and Jewish Home.
Bennett’s faction estimates they will win the majority of the settler vote, which in 2009 went strongly for Likud.
The battle has prompted some members of Likud to push Netanyahu to adopt the conclusions of the Levy Report, issued last year, which recommended that the government legalise unauthorised settlement outposts.
It also deemed Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank legal, despite the opinion of the vast majority of the international community to the contrary.
The report has been criticised by the international community, but won support among Israel’s rightwing.
“Adopting this text is the best way to show the world our right to this land,” Bennett said.