Did Netanyahu just promise to annex the West Bank if reelected?

On Saturday night, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was interviewed by Israeli TV Channel 12’s Rena Matzliah. Comments that Netanyahu made in the interview have been the basis for a flurry of media reports with misleading headlines in Australia with wildly exaggerated claims.

The Ageheadline read “Israel PM to annex West Bank”. The Australia Financial Review’s headline read “Netanyahu vows to annex West Bank”. The West Australian ran the headline “PM pledge to annex West Bank”. But is that really what happened? What did Netanyahu actually say in that interview?

The relevant excerpt appears in written Hebrew on the website for the Israeli paper Ma’ariv.

When pressed by Matzliah why his government had not extended sovereignty to settlement blocs within the national consensus – places like Gush Etzion and Ma’ale Adumim, near Jerusalem – Netanyahu replied:

“Who told you we would not do that? We’re on the way, we’re discussing it. I think that everyone understands that the next term will be fateful, but the question is whether we can ensure our security and control of Judea and Samaria, and that we will not get another Gaza. I made a few things clear, the first problem is what not to do. Gantz and Lapid said they would uproot 80-90,000 Jews and turn Judea and Samaria into Gaza. That is their perception, this is how peace is made.”

“My perception is the opposite,” Netanyahu added, “I brought around the statement on the Golan Heights of President Trump, who says it’s our space forever. I brought him around to recognize Jerusalem. I will not divide Jerusalem, I will not uproot any settlement and I will take care that we control of all the territory west of the Jordan.”

Netanyahu also said on the diplomatic issue:

“[You’re asking] will we also move on to the next stage?  The answer is yes. We will move on to the next stage of gradually applying Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria. I also do not distinguish between the settlement blocs and the individual settlement points. Every such settlement is Israeli to me. We have responsibility for them and will not transfer them to the Palestinians.

“I also have a commitment to the security of Israel because if we learned something, it is that if we abandon territory, radical Islam and Iran enter. I am not going to hand over Israel’s heart.”

Did Netanyahu just promise to annex the West Bank if reelected? The answer is, clearly, no.

Firstly, in this interview he does not say he would do anything concrete on this matter in his next term, preferring the ambiguous allusion that “the next term [of office] would be fateful”. Secondly, his comment about supporting the “next stage of gradually applying Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank” could be interpreted in any number of ways – including, conceivably, as part of a US-brokered peace plan.

The truth is, nothing that Netanyahu said in the interview was new:

  • Netanyahu assured that he would not to uproot any settlements as he does not believe that doing so helps the cause of peace and risks the West Bank becoming a launching pad for Islamist attacks against Israel, like Gaza. He has made widely reported statements of this sort on at least two other occasions, for example in August 2017, (as he said at the time: “It has been proved that uprooting settlements does not foster peace”) as well as more recently, in December 2018.
  • Netanyahu told the Likud party in February 2018 that he had discussed with the Trump Administration his intention to eventually annex West Bank settlements (the White House, at the time, denied this was the case, and the Likud spokesman “quoted Netanyahu as telling the lawmakers that any change in the settlements’ status must first be coordinated, ‘as much as possible’ with the United States”.
  • In the context of the February 2018 report, there is no indication that Netanyahu would make changes in the status of Israeli settlements in the West Bank without the coordination of the US and is respectful of the Trump peace plan, also known as the “Deal of the Century”, which is expected to be unveiled later this year.
  • In the April 6 Channel 12 interview, Netanyahu speaks explicitly only about applying sovereignty on Israeli settlements themselves and not on Palestinian-controlled areas or other West Bank areas.

Meanwhile, Noa Landau, a writer and analyst for the left-wing newspaper Ha’aretz, has pointed out that Netanyahu had personally blocked from advancing three bills dealing with various forms of annexation within the West Bank in the last Knesset. She called out Netanyahu’s statement as nothing more than a ploy to lure away votes from parties to the right of Likud:

Anything that’s said or will be said in the week before the election not only should be taken with a grain of salt, but with at least two full shakers of it.

The same, it appears, applies to many local reports on this story.