Saudis condemn Israeli PM’s West Bank annexation plans

Saudi Arabia on Wednesday denounced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pre-election vow to annex parts of the West Bank as a “very dangerous escalation” of tensions in the Middle East, adding to international condemnations and injecting the issue of Palestinian statehood into an election campaign that had all but ignored it.

The strongly worded statement from the Saudi royal court, which runs the affairs of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, marked a significant rebuke from a regional power that had grown closer to Israel in recent years over its shared concerns about Iran’s growing belligerency.

Netanyahu pledged on Tuesday he would extend Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley if he’s re-elected next week, and would move to annex Jewish settlements. Critics said this could inflame the situation in the Middle East and eliminate any Palestinian hope of establishing a separate state.

Netanyahu has made similar pledges to annex West Bank settlements before and hasn’t followed through. The move was widely viewed in Israel as Netanyahu’s latest campaign stunt to try to draw in more right-wing voters. It appeared unlikely to spark a major reaction in the Arab world.

But Jordan and the United Nations immediately rejected the proposal, and Saudi Arabia made it clear “there is no peace without the return of the occupied Palestinian territories” as it called for an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers.

“The Arab and Islamic worlds’ preoccupation with many local and regional crises will not affect the status of the Palestinian cause,” the royal court said in a statement. “Israel’s attempts to impose a fait accompli policy will not obliterate the inalienable and protected rights of the Palestinian people.”

The 57-nation Organization for Islamic Cooperation also condemned Netanyahu’s proposal, saying it would convene to “take urgent political and legal measures to address this aggressive Israeli position.”

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council likewise criticized Netanyahu’s announcement. Some members of the GCC — which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — had been edging closer to forming open ties with Israel in recent years, something Netanyahu himself had touted as one of his major diplomatic achievements.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking Tuesday in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, stands next to a map showing areas of the West Bank that he says Israel plans to annex. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Netanyahu said it was important to act now as U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to unveil his Middle East peace plan after the Sept. 17 elections in Israel.

Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 war. Over 2.5 million Palestinians now live there, in addition to nearly 700,000 Jewish settlers. Israel already has annexed East Jerusalem in a move that is not internationally recognized. The international community, along with the Palestinians, overwhelmingly considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem illegal.

The Jordan Valley is relatively sparsely populated and seen by Israel as a key strategic asset since it provides a buffer zone against potential attacks from the east. Even moderate Israelis believe Israel should retain some element of control in the area under a peace deal.

Netanyahu did not detail what would happen to the Palestinian residents of the Jordan Valley if he went forward with his plan.

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