LISBON – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel has the “full right” to annex the Jordan Valley if it chose to, even as the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court warned the country against taking the bold step.
Netanyahu said his proposal to annex the strategic part of the occupied West Bank was discussed during a late-night meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He said they also agreed to move forward with plans for a joint defense treaty.
The longtime Israeli leader, beleaguered by a corruption indictment and political instability at home, is promoting the two initiatives as a justification for staying in office.
The Trump administration has already delivered several landmark victories to Netanyahu, such as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. Netanyahu says that thanks to his close relationship with Trump, he is singularly positioned to further promote Israeli interests at this junction before the 2020 U.S. election season heats up.
The annexation move would surely draw condemnation from the Palestinians and much of the world and almost certainly extinguish any remaining Palestinian hopes of gaining independence.
The Palestinians seek all the West Bank, captured by Israel in 1967, as the heartland of their hoped-for state. The Jordan Valley comprises some 25% of the West Bank and is seen as the territory’s breadbasket and one of the few remaining open areas that could be developed by the Palestinians.
But many Israelis say the area is vital to the country’s security, providing a layer of protection along its eastern flank.
In her annual report, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said her office was following the Israeli annexation proposal “with concern.”
When asked by reporters about the warning, Netanyahu insisted that it is Israel’s “full right to do so, if we chose so.”
Netanyahu’s visit with Pompeo was their first since the secretary of state announced last month that the U.S. no longer considers Israeli settlements illegal under international law. Israeli nationalists have interpreted that policy change as a green light to begin annexing parts or all of the West Bank.
Netanyahu called their 1 hour and 45 minute-meeting in Lisbon “critical to Israeli security.”
In particular, he noted the progress they made toward a joint defense pact that would offer Israel further assurance against a future attack from Iran. He said he has informed his chief rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, of the progress in the initiative.
Israeli defense officials, and Gantz as well, have expressed concern that such a pact could limit Israel’s freedom to operate militarily. Netanyahu said he was aware of the reservations but assured that it was a “historic opportunity” and Israel would not be limited to act against archenemy Iran.
Mike Makovsky, president and chief executive of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America in Washington, which has been promoting the idea of a narrow defense pact, said the proposal would offer “an extra layer of deterrence” and “mitigate the intensity and scope” of a potential war with Iran.
“Just like every other mutual defense treaty it would be left to the discretion of both parties how it would be implemented,” he said. "Mutual defense pacts have been sources for stability.”
In Lisbon, Netanyahu also met with Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa and thanked him for adopting the Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism, which toughens guidelines to include some forms of criticism of Israel. Israeli researchers reported earlier this year that violent attacks against Jews around the world spiked significantly in 2018, with the largest reported number of Jews killed in anti-Semitic acts in decades.
The trip gave Netanyahu a brief respite as he fights for political survival in the wake of two inconclusive elections and a damning corruption indictment. He refused to discuss his future options but vowed to carry on.
Israel’s attorney general last month indicted Netanyahu for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate cases.
It is the first time in Israeli history that a sitting prime minister has been charged with a crime. Unlike mayors or regular ministers, the prime minister is not required by Israeli law to resign if indicted. Netanyahu is desperate to remain in office, where he is best positioned to fight the charges.