Benny Gantz, the leader of the “centrist” Blue & White party and main challenger to the premiership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, vowed on Tuesday to annex the Jordan Valley if he wins the Israeli elections on March 2.
“We see this strip of land as an inseparable part of the State of Israel,” Gantz said on a tour of the region, highlighting the Jordan Valley’s strategic location as “Israel’s eastern defensive barrier in any future conflict.”
Gantz added that while Netanyahu seeks to unilaterally annex the Jordan Valley, which accounts for one-third of the occupied West Bank, he would do so “in coordination with the international community.”
With the exception of the current US administration, the consensus among the international community is that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories is illegal.
Gantz went on to say he was “looking forward” to the release of U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan, saying “I hope that President Trump will hurry and release his plan.”
His comments on Tuesday regarding the U.S. peace plan marked a stark departure from his previously stated views, in which he expressed that the publication of the plan ahead of the elections would be an “outright intervention” in Israeli democracy, and only serve to further Netanyahu’s political agenda.
When asked about his change in opinion, Gantz told reporters “Several weeks have passed,” and “many dramatic things are happening in the Middle East.”
Netanyahu, who announced his plans to annex the Jordan Valley during last year’s election, hit back at Gantz, asking “why wait until after the election if we can apply sovereignty over the Jordan Valley right now with broad consensus in the Knesset?”
In a Likud campaign speech on Tuesday night, Netanyahu called the Blue and White party “left-wing” and vowed to apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and all West Bank settlements “without exception,” the Times of Israel reported.
Chairman of the Arab Joint List Ayman Odeh, who previously endorsed Gantz as the only chance to defeat Netanyahu, criticized Gantz’s announcement, tweeting “the citizens of the country deserve hope and not imitation – that’s not how a prime minister is replaced.”
“Annexation is the elimination of any chance of democracy and peace,” he said. “You’ve probably forgotten that there is life after the campaign, too.”
“The pathetic attempt to appease a few voices from the right is not worth the destruction of the future of us all.”
The Jordan Valley’s strategic geographical location, its vast swaths of fertile land, and unparalleled water supply have made it a target of the right-wing Israeli government and the settlement movement for years.
The Jordan Valley constitutes much of the agricultural wealth of Palestinians, with 42% of the Palestinian population in the area depending on agriculture and animal husbandry for their livelihoods.
Over the years, through settlement expansion and military confiscations, much of the land has become inaccessible to the Palestinians living there.
Israel’s right-wing has doubled down on its efforts to further its control the Jordan Valley in recent weeks, most recently with Defense Minister Naftali Bennet announcing the establishment of seven new nature reserves in the West Bank — the majority of them in the Jordan Valley.