Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz has told the army to step up preparations in parts of the West Bank, heightening the sense the government stands ready to make a possible dramatic announcement on annexation in the next few weeks.
In a statement Monday afternoon, Gantz said he had instructed the head of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) “to accelerate [its] preparations ahead of political steps on the agenda in the Palestinian arena.”
That language is widely understood as an instruction to the IDF to prepare for possible widespread violence by Palestinians, as well as other possible regional ramifications, if Israel moves to annex some of the occupied territory.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigned in all three recent elections on a promise to extend the reach of Israeli sovereignty into parts of the West Bank, land captured by Israel in 1967.
That pledge was given full US backing in January when President Donald Trump unveiled his administration’s plan for the Middle East, which envisages Israel annexing all Jewish settlements in the territory as well as the Jordan Valley.
By contrast, Gantz’s position in the elections was against unilateral annexation – he said he believed such a move should only happen with the support of the international community.
But in the coalition agreement, the Blue and White leader set aside those concerns, agreeing instead that Netanyahu could bring forward the necessary legislation as early as July 1st, only needing support from Washington, as well as from the Israeli parliament, which appears to have a clear majority in favor of annexation, whether Gantz and his party colleagues support it or not.
Even though Netanyahu is yet to spell out exactly how much of the West Bank he intends to annex, he has reiterated his intentions many times in recent weeks.
At his swearing-in just two two weeks ago, he told lawmakers “it is time” to apply sovereignty.
And in widely-leaked comments last week, the Prime Minister reportedly told his Likud faction that he was sticking to his July timetable.
In what is being seen as a further indication that Gantz is now on board as well, the Defense Minister also met Monday with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, one of the most outspoken advocates of extending Israeli sovereignty.
The West Bank, along with East Jerusalem, was captured by Israel from Jordan during a short war in 1967.
Both territories are seen as occupied under international law, though Israel disputes such a characterization; it also stresses it launched the Six Day War as an act of self-defense.
Many in the international community including the United Nations remains committed to the idea of a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would see a Palestinian state established in the West Bank and Gaza, with a capital in East Jerusalem.
The Palestinian Authority has rejected the Trump administration’s peace plan outright and has ended its security coordination with Israel, seen as key to preventing terror attacks, in protest at moves toward annexation.
Many former Israeli defense officials warn that annexation could trigger a widespread outbreak of violence in the West Bank, especially at a time of soaring unemployment and a dire economic outlook for Palestinians.
Those fears of a possible increase in violence are shared by the US State Department, which issued a security alert last week, warning American citizens visiting the West Bank that “violence can occur with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, government checkpoints, markets and shopping facilities or government facilities.”
Jordan’s King Abdullah has also voiced his strong opposition to possible annexation, telling Germany’s Der Spiegel news magazine it could lead to a ‘massive conflict’ between his country and Israel.
The King said he is considering all options but did not rule out possible withdrawal from a peace agreement signed by Israel and Jordan in 1994.