JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu renewed a vow to annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank as the embattled leader kicked off a third election campaign in under a year Tuesday.
Addressing Likud Party supporters at a campaign launch event in Jerusalem, Netanyahu promised to “impose Israeli sovereignty on the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea," then pledged to annex all Israeli West Bank settlements “without exception."
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians seek those territories as part of a future state. Most of the international community considers Israel's West Bank settlements illegal under international law.
Netanyahu had previously called for the annexation of the Jordan Valley ahead of September's repeat parliamentary elections. He and other Israeli officials contend the region is crucial to defending the country’s eastern flank.
Annexation of the Jordan Valley, which makes up around a quarter of the West Bank and is the territory's agricultural heartland, would make a future Palestinian state unviable and would draw condemnation from the Palestinians and much of the international community.
U.N. political chief Rosemary DiCarlo reiterated at a U.N. Security Council meeting Tuesday that “all settlements are illegal under international law and remain an obstacle to peace" and warned against annexation.
Among the “negative developments” undermining prospects for a two-state solution, she cited the first meeting on Jan. 5 of an Israeli ministerial committee tasked with discussing annexation plans for the Jordan Valley and Israeli authorities advancing plans on Jan. 4-5 for some 1,900 residential units in settlements in Area C — the roughly 60% of the West Bank where Israel exercises full control and where most Jewish settlements are located.
“The annexation of some or all of Area C, if implemented, would deal a devastating blow to the potential of reviving negotiations, advancing regional peace, and the essence of the two-state solution," DiCarlo warned.
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian U.N. ambassador, told the council that “neither threats nor attempts at annexation should go unchallenged.”
“The urgency of stopping Israeli annexation schemes cannot be underestimated; immediate action is needed before it is too late," he said, stressing that the U.N. Charter's prohibition on acquiring territory by force must be upheld along with Security Council resolutions reaffirming the illegality of Israeli settlements.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's office said in a statement that the calls to annex areas of the West Bank "undermine the foundations of the peace process" and regional stability.
In her 2019 annual report, the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said her office was following Israel's proposed annexation of West Bank areas “with concern.”
The U.S. has not commented on Israel's stated intentions to annex the region.
Both the prime minister and his main rival, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, have tried to pander to hard-line nationalist voters as the election approaches.
Israel faces an unprecedented third parliamentary election in under a year on March 2 after Netanyahu twice failed to form a governing coalition after April and September's votes.
Earlier on Tuesday, Gantz said his party would “work toward establishing sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and we will do so based on national agreement and in coordination with the international community.”
Most political analysts see the March election as a referendum on Netanyahu's ability to lead following his indictment on a series of corruption charges in November. Netanyahu, Israel's longest serving prime minister, has denied any wrongdoing.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations