Netanyahu says Israel has 'full right' to annex Jordan Valley
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday that Israel has the "full right" to annex the Jordan Valley if it chose to, even as the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court warned the country against taking the bold step.
Netanyahu said his proposal to annex the strategic part of the occupied West Bank was discussed during a late-night meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He said they also agreed to move forward with plans for a joint defence treaty.
The long-time Israeli leader, beleaguered by a corruption indictment and political instability at home, is promoting the two initiatives as a justification for staying in office.
The Trump administration has already delivered several landmark victories to Netanyahu, such as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital and recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.
Netanyahu says that thanks to his close relationship with Trump, he is singularly positioned to further promote Israeli interests at this junction before the 2020 US election season heats up.
The annexation move would surely draw condemnation from the Palestinians and much of the world and almost certainly extinguish any remaining Palestinian hopes of gaining independence.
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The Palestinians seek all the West Bank, captured by Israel in 1967, as the heartland of their hoped-for state. The Jordan Valley comprises some 25 percent of the West Bank and is seen as the territory's breadbasket and one of the few remaining open areas that could be developed by the Palestinians.
But many Israelis say the area is vital to the country's security, providing a layer of protection along its eastern flank.
In her annual report, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said her office was following the Israeli annexation proposal "with concern."
When asked by reporters about the warning, Netanyahu insisted that it is Israel's "full right to do so, if we chose so."
Netanyahu's visit with Pompeo was their first since the secretary of state announced last month that the US no longer considers Israeli settlements illegal under international law.
Israeli nationalists have interpreted that policy change as a green light to begin annexing parts or all of the West Bank.
Netanyahu called their 1 hour and 45 minute-meeting in Lisbon "critical to Israeli security."
In particular, he noted the progress they made toward a joint defence pact that would offer Israel further assurance against a future attack from Iran. He said he has informed his chief rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, of the progress in the initiative.
Read more: The history of Israeli settlements since 1967
Israeli defence officials, and Gantz as well, have expressed concern that such a pact could limit Israel's freedom to operate militarily. Netanyahu said he was aware of the reservations but assured that it was a "historic opportunity" and Israel would not be limited to act against archenemy Iran.
The trip gave Netanyahu a brief respite as he fights for political survival in the wake of two inconclusive elections and a damning corruption indictment. He refused to discuss his future options but vowed to carry on.
Israel's attorney general last month indicted Netanyahu for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate cases.
It is the first time in Israeli history that a sitting prime minister has been charged with a crime. Unlike mayors or regular ministers, the prime minister is not required by Israeli law to resign if indicted. Netanyahu is desperate to remain in office, where he is best positioned to fight the charges.
Agencies contributed to this report.