11 September 2019
- Netanyahu’s announcement of plans to extend Israeli sovereignty to Jordan Valley will raise risk of violence in West Bank and Gaza
- Announcement timed ahead of 17 September elections, as plan will be hugely popular among right-wing voters
- Imminent move to enact plans unlikely, but probable that they will form part of President Trump’s proposed regional peace deal
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced at a rally in the southern city of Ashdod on 10 September that he would extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea in the West Bank if re-elected. He also reaffirmed a pledge to go further and annex all Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories but said he would only do so after the release of the US peace plan, expected after the 17 September elections, and following consultations with US President Trump. Netanyahu’s speech was interrupted by rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, which was claimed by the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, with Hamas rejecting any involvement. The announcement received widespread condemnation, particularly from Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, who said he would cancel all PA agreements with Israel in response to such a move.
The Trump administration has offered near unprecedented levels of support to Israel since coming to office, adopting a hardline approach towards the Palestinians. This, coupled with pressure from his own right-wing support base and coalition partners, has seen Netanyahu adopt an increasingly pro-settler approach, favouring increased Israeli encroachment into Palestinian territories. This was highlighted by the Government’s approval in late July of the construction of 6,000 new homes for Jewish settlers in Area C of the West Bank (see our 7 August Report). The proposed moves to extend Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley would represent a further expansion into Area C – Palestinian territory over which Israel retains civil and military control – and thus represents a continuation of Netanyahu’s approach.
That said, this would represent a major escalation since the Jordan Valley covers 30% of Area C, in which some 65,000 Palestinians and 11,000 Israeli settlers live. The move would therefore be extremely provocative, fatally undermining the Oslo Accords and ending any prospect of a two-state solution. Netanyahu’s decision to announce the plan now in part reflects the opportunity provided by the Trump administration’s resolute backing, without which such a plan could never be credibly realised. More significantly, it reflects Netanyahu’s desire to secure re-election, as this plan will be very popular among right-wingers. Indeed, backing from these voters will be vital to ensuring he doesn’t lose his position as Prime Minister, which would prevent him passing legislation to secure his immunity from prosecution on major corruption charges.
Netanyahu has previously announced major annexation plans but has not followed through on them, likely reflecting an acknowledgement of the risks involved. In particular, Abbas would have little choice but to terminate security cooperation agreements between Israel and the PA if the proposed expansion plan proceeds. This would trigger a major increase in violence against Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and would also prompt a major escalation and potential open conflict with Hamas in Gaza. As a result, the extension of sovereignty is very unlikely to be imminent.
That said, the announcement will have been made with Trump’s blessing, which suggests the upcoming US peace plan will at least somewhat increase Israeli control of the Jordan Valley, making annexation plausible over the longer term. As a result, the announcement alone will increase the risk of protests and isolated, low-level attacks against Israeli interests in the West Bank over coming weeks, particularly ahead of the 17 September polls. It will also likely raise the risk of rocket attacks from Gaza and intensified border protests, which will provoke retaliatory Israeli air strikes, although both Hamas and Tel Aviv will remain keen to try to prevent a major upsurge in violence, and will continue to engage in Egyptian-mediated de-escalation talks.