Blue and White Party chair Benny Gantz announced on Tuesday that his party will work to annex the Jordan Valley after the March general elections, a potential significant move geared to wooing right-wing voters.

“We again establish that the Jordan Valley is the eastern defense shield of Israel, no matter what happens in the future,” he said in his announcement held in the Jordan Valley, where he was joined by former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. “After the election, we will take steps to annex the Jordan Valley, and until then, we will support the development of the area.”

The Jordan Valley includes about 22 percent of Judea and Samaria, and is home to 30 Israeli settlements with more than 10,000 Israeli residents. It has long been considered a strategic region for Israel, as it forms the country’s eastern border with Jordan vital to protecting the country from security threats.

Ya’alon, who now is No. 3 in Blue and White, told JNS that “the Jordan Valley is the eastern border of the State of Israel forever,” and that this has always been Blue and White’s platform and belief.

Responses to Gantz’s announcement were quick to come from all sides of the political spectrum. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted in reply, “Why wait until after the election if we can annex the Jordan Valley right now with wide agreement in the Knesset?”

Netanyahu made a similar campaign pledge to annex the Jordan Valley before the September general elections, which ended up with no coalition government, as it did in April of last year.

Likud Party Knesset member Keti Sheetrit told JNS that “last week, MK Ahmed Tibi of the Joint Arab List openly told Blue and White MK Yoaz Hendel that if Blue and White supports annexation, then the Arab parties will make sure that Blue and White remains in the opposition and that Gantz won’t be prime minister.”

Sheetrit continued in a clear swipe at Gantz’s attempt to draw support from the right, asking: “The question is will Gantz accept the prime minister’s challenge and move forward with annexation now, or will Tibi veto that idea?”

Ya’alon told JNS that Netanyahu’s reply “is just spin,” explaining that “for 10 years, Netanyahu didn’t even consider annexing the Jordan Valley unilaterally, and he was even willing to give it up as part of [former U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry’s plan in 2014.”

‘Cannot fall into the trap of the right’

Amir Peretz, chairman of the Labor-Meretz faction, which is running in the election as the only natural partner for Blue and White on the left, responded that he “hopes that Blue and White will not be dragged into ideology of the extreme right-wing”—that it cannot “fall into the trap of the right.”

Labor Party Knesset member Omar Bar Lev supported Peretz’s stance, telling JNS that “because of the fact that the Jordan Valley makes up a high percentage of the West Bank, any unilateral annexations by Israel will eliminate the possibility of Israel reaching a peace arrangement with the Palestinians in the future. That will lead to a binational state west of the Jordan without a clear Jewish majority.”

Meretz Party chairman MK Nitzan Horowitz attacked Gantz for moving to the right, saying that “it is now clear to anyone on the center-left that they have nothing to find with the Blue and White Party.”

The issue of annexing the Jordan Valley remains highly controversial, and much of the international community has vocalized that they will not recognize Israel’s control over the disputed territories. When Netanyahu raised the idea as a campaign promise before last September’s election, the proposal was condemned by the United Nations, the Arab League and many European countries.

Elements within the Israeli attorney general’s office have also expressed hesitation about Israel taking this action on the basis of international law, especially at a time when Israel is under the microscope of the International Court in The Hague.

Nevertheless, the United States under President Donald Trump has indicated an openness to recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, including the Jordan Valley. At a recent policy conference, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “disavowed” the 1978 Hansell Memorandum, a State Department memo that claimed Israeli settlements violate international law.

‘Dramatic things are taking place in the Middle East’

During the same tour on Jan. 21, Gantz addressed the Trump peace plan, saying, “I hope that President Trump will move up the publication of the plan. … Many dramatic things are taking place in the Middle East.”

It represents a change from what Gantz said just two weeks ago in response to reports that the Trump administration may release aspects of the Mideast peace plan before the March 2 general elections. He stated, “I can assume that with regard to such an important issue, the Americans will be very careful not to publicize it before the election. This would be tangible and clear intervention in the process.”

Bar-Lev criticized Gantz’s eagerness for the release of the U.S. plan, telling JNS: “I know one thing clearly. The solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only come if both sides want to achieve it, and only if both sides are willing to make painful concessions.”

The Trump administration explored the idea of releasing its Mideast peace initiative before the elections in April and September 2019, but decided not to because of the potential impact it could have on voting. Within the Israeli political establishment, there are two lines of thought. Some believe that Trump is against releasing the plan because it is assumed that it would hurt Netanyahu. Others think that Trump wants it released because it could prompt leaders of Likud, and Blue and White, to work together in the formation of a unity government.

The White House, however, seemed unhappy with Gantz’s strong words two weeks ago; this could partially explain his change in tone regarding the policy’s release.

In a telling moment during the Jordan Valley visit, when Gantz was asked whether he is in contact with Trump and his administrative staff, Gantz made a point to move on to the next question.

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