Netanyahu approves ‘regularisation’ of illegal West Bank settlement days before Israeli election
The approval came as Netanyahu and his main opponent Benny Gantz vied to mobilise supporters, with final rallies planned for Sunday evening.
Netanyahu has made a flurry of announcements in recent days as part of his efforts to continue his reign as Israel's longest-serving prime minister.
On Sunday, the cabinet agreed to turn the illegally constructed and unapproved settlement of Mevoot Yericho in the Jordan Valley into an official Israeli settlement, Netanyahu’s office said.
All settlements are illegal under international law, but Israel distinguishes between those it has approved and those it has not.
Around 175 people live in the outpost, which was established very near the Palestinian city of Jericho in 1999 and whose name literally translates as “Doorway to Jericho”.
Israeli settlers regularly seize land to set up caravan homes at sites in the West Bank with the hope of eventually gaining government approval as a settlement, which has repeatedly occurred.
The latest approval follows Netanyahu's pledge last week to annex the Jordan Valley, which amounts to one-third of the West Bank, if he wins Tuesday's elections.
"The government passed the PM's motion to build Mevoot Yericho," a statement from Netanyahu's office said as the weekly cabinet meeting was convened ceremoniously in the occupied Jordan Valley.
For more than 50 years, Israel has refused to comply with international resolutions urging it to withdraw from the Jordan Valley and the rest of the West Bank, which were occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas's spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh dismissed the entire cabinet meeting as illegal and called on the international community to "stop the Israeli madness aimed at destroying all the foundations of the political process."
Israeli anti-settlement NGO Peace Now said "the government continues to show blatant disregard for reaching a two-state conflict-ending agreement with the Palestinians."
Netanyahu has also said he intends to annex settlements in the wider West Bank, but in coordination with US President Donald Trump, whose controversial peace plan, already rejected by Palestinians, is expected to be released after the election.
The European Union and the United Nations - in addition to the Palestinians - condemned Netanyahu's Jordan Valley announcement last week.
Netanyahu said the Jordan Valley annexation would not include Palestinian cities such as Jericho, but they would effectively be encircled by Israeli territory, making the establishment of a viable Palestinian state impossible.
Netanyahu is locked in a tough re-election battle with ex-military chief Gantz and his Blue and White centrist alliance, and right-wing nationalist votes are key for his Likud.
Some 400,000 Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank, which is home to 2.8 million Palestinians.
The settlements are built on illegally confiscated land and are viewed as major stumbling blocks to peace, because they are built on territory essential to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.
Beyond the cabinet approval, Netanyahu and Gantz were making last pitches to voters.
"Economic growth is at a record level, as are per capita GDP, tourism and exports. Unemployment is at an all-time low," Netanyahu wrote in Yediot Aharonot newspaper, which gave both candidates space on the front page to express their views.
"Anyone who wants to ensure that we will continue to protect Israel, anyone who wants a strong right-wing government under my leadership, has to vote only (Likud)."
Gantz argued he can heal divisions in Israeli society that he says Netanyahu has exacerbated.
He spoke of the corruption accusations facing Netanyahu, who could be indicted in the weeks ahead, and of his readiness to form a coalition with far-right parties that could help him seek immunity from prosecution in parliament.
"I see what kind of government Netanyahu wants to form: an extremist minority government that would decide for the majority and act toward immunity for Netanyahu," Gantz said in an interview with the Walla news site.
"There's a new option in Israeli society - a majority government for everyone."
Netanyahu, prime minister for a total of more than 13 years, is seeking to overcome one of the biggest failures of his political career following April elections.
In those polls, Likud along with its far-right and religious allies won a majority of seats, but he failed to form a coalition government and opted for a second election as a result.
Opinion polls show results are likely to again be close.
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