Jerusalem, Sept 16 (AP/UNB) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his final pre-election Cabinet meeting on Sunday in a part of the West Bank he has vowed to annex if re-elected and laid out a plan to build a new settlement there, amid a last-ditch drive to galvanize his nationalistic base.
The meeting, along with the new pledges, came despite an international outcry over Netanyahu's promise to annex the West Bank's Jordan Valley. Annexing the area, considered to be the heartland of any future Palestinian state, would all but extinguish any remaining Palestinian hopes for independence.
Netanyahu has staged a flurry of media appearances to beseech supporters to vote in large numbers to stave off the prospect of a left-wing government he says will endanger the country's security.
A centerpiece of his late-hour agenda has been the pledge to extend Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and to annex Jewish settlements, something Netanyahu refrained from doing during his decade-plus in power.
The proposal sparked a cascade of international condemnation, including from Europe and Saudi Arabia, an influential Arab country that has quiet, unofficial ties with Israel. The U.S., however, had a muted reaction, suggesting Netanyahu coordinated his plan with the Americans ahead of time.
Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf restated the kingdom's opposition to the move at a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, calling it "a dangerous escalation" that endangers peace efforts.
On Sunday, Netanyahu's Cabinet approved a proposal to retroactively legalize the small West Bank outpost of Mevo'ot Yeriho, a remote community on the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Jericho in the Jordan Valley.
In an open letter in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, Netanyahu said that with President Donald Trump planning to unveil his much-awaited Mideast peace plan, the conditions have "ripened" to apply sovereignty to all "settlements and areas of strategic and national importance" in the West Bank.
Netanyahu has repeatedly promised that Jewish West Bank settlements will be "part of the state of Israel" and that none will be evacuated in any kind of agreement with the Palestinians. It's a pledge that has become central to his second election campaign of 2019, following his failure to form a ruling coalition after April's elections.
Seated in a makeshift tent and flanked by his ministers against a backdrop of Israeli flags, 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 kilometers 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 the pending corruption charges against him in a courtroom. 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, 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 that his close relationship with Trump has resulted in the exploration of a possible defense 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, Netanyahu politicized the issue. His chief challenger, retired military chief Benny Gantz, also supports retaining control over the territory but dismissed 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.
Over 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 recognized. 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 doesn't control the border. With annexation they would lose a fertile area, which is home to many Palestinian farms and is one of the few remaining areas of the West Bank with open space for development.