Israeli leader vows to continue annexing West Bank

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JERUSALEM –
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged on Monday to annex parts of the occupied West Bank in the coming months, vowing to continue the explosive plan despite a growing chorus of condemnations by key allies.

Palestinians, with broad international support, seek the entire West Bank as the heart of a future independent state. The annexation of large parts of this territory would almost destroy the last hope for a two-state solution.

In an apparent reference to President Donald Trump’s friendly administration, Netanyahu said that Israel had a “historic opportunity” to redraw the map of the Middle East that could not be missed. Israeli media quoted him as saying he would act in July.

“This is an opportunity we will not let pass,” he told members of his conservative Likud party. He added that “the historic opportunity” to annex the West Bank had never occurred since the founding of Israel in 1948.

These comments threatened to bring Israel closer to a confrontation with Arab and European partners, and could widen what becomes a growing partisan divide over Israel in Washington.

Israel captured the West Bank during the 1967 Middle East War. It installed nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers there, but never officially claimed it as Israeli territory due to strong international opposition.

But the Trump administration has taken a much sweeter stance toward the Israeli settlements than its predecessors. Trump’s Middle East team is dominated by advisers with close ties to the settlements, and his Middle East plan, unveiled in January, plans to leave some 30 percent of the territory under permanent Israeli control while granting Palestinians increased autonomy in the rest of the region. The Palestinians rejected the plan, saying it is unjustly biased towards Israel.

With Trump’s prospects for re-election uncertain in November, Israeli extremists urged Netanyahu to proceed quickly with the annexation. The Israeli leader’s new coalition agreement includes an official clause allowing him to present his annexation plan to the government in July.

Netanyahu told party members in a closed-door meeting that “we have a target date for July and we have no plans to change it,” Likud officials said.

The plan has already revealed a partisan divide in Washington. Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic candidate for the US presidential election, recently said that the annexation would “stifle” hopes for a two-state solution. Eighteen Democratic senators warned in a letter this week that the annexation could harm US-Israeli relations.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the annexation would violate international law and vowed to use “all our diplomatic capabilities” to end it.

Closer to home, Palestinians severed security ties last week – a valuable tool in a joint struggle against Islamic militants – with Israel to protest the plan for annexation.

Saudi Arabia, an influential Arab country with behind-the-scenes relationships with Israel, has announced its “rejection of Israeli measures and plans to annex Palestinian lands”.

The Arab League has condemned it as a “war crime” and Jordan and Egypt – the only two Arab countries at peace with Israel – have severely criticized it.

Netanyahu spoke a day after the start of his corruption trial.

The Prime Minister launched a torrid tirade against the country’s justice system upon his arrival in court, accusing the police, prosecutors and the media of conspiring to oust him. As he spoke, hundreds of supporters cheered outside.

Speaking to Likud on Monday, Netanyahu said he was “very moved” by the support.

Critics have said that his attacks on the justice system risk undermining the democratic foundations of the country.

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