Israel's Netanyahu vows 'immediate' annexation steps if re-elected

Stephen Weizman
1 / 3

Finals poll ahead of Israel's vote pointed to another tight race between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and the centrist Blue and White party, led by ex-military chief Benny Gantz

Finals poll ahead of Israel's vote pointed to another tight race between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and the centrist Blue and White party, led by ex-military chief Benny Gantz (AFP Photo/RONEN ZVULUN, Jack GUEZ )

Jerusalem (AFP) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged Sunday to annex key parts of the occupied West Bank within "weeks" if re-elected, as he sought to sway voters a day before the country's third election in a year.

Final polls pointed to another tight race between Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and the centrist Blue and White party led by ex-military chief Benny Gantz.

All parties have raised concern about voter apathy amid the grinding political stalemate, putting extra emphasis on turnout.

Netanyahu, Israel's longest serving premier, has been accused before previous elections of making last-minute plays to energise his right-wing base.

In an interview with Israeli public radio, he said annexation of the strategically crucial Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank was his top priority among "four major immediate missions".

"That will happen within weeks, two months at the most, I hope," he said in the interview aired 24 hours before polls were scheduled to open.

US President Donald Trump's widely-criticised Middle East peace plan, unveiled in late January, gave the Jewish state a green light to annex the Jordan Valley and proposed a committee to set out the exact borders of the territory in question.

"The joint US-Israeli mapping committee started work a week ago," Netanyahu said.

- 'Close to victory' -

Netanyahu listed his other priorities as signing an "historic" defence treaty with the United States, Israel's key ally, and "eradicating the Iranian threat", without elaborating.

He has repeatedly pledged to stop the Islamic republic from developing a nuclear weapon and has not ruled out the use of force.

Netanyahu said that his fourth "immediate" goal if re-elected -- despite facing trial on multiple corruption charges -- would be major economic reform to bring down Israel's high cost of living.

In November, the 70-year-old, who has spent 14 years as prime minister, became the only head of government in Israel's history to be indicted in office.

He is charged with corruption, embezzlement and breach of trust. His trial opens on March 17.

Gantz has sought to put the indictment at the centre of the campaign but polling suggests Netanyahu's support has held steady.

Netanyahu denies wrongdoing and, some 12 hours before polls were due to open, proclaimed that Likud was "close to victory".

- 'Can't sit at home' -

After inconclusive elections in April and September, final opinion polls forecast Likud and Blue and White will both struggle to form a stable 61-seat coalition.

Those results would be identical to previous rounds, after which both leaders tried, and failed, to form a government.

Analysts say that after trudging to the ballot boxes twice in under 12 months, few Israeli voters remain undecided.

That has forced candidates to put added energy into bolstering turnout.

"I am encouraging citizens to get out and vote," Gantz told public radio Sunday.

"You can't just sit at home clicking your tongue, saying, 'What's happening here?' Voting is critical," he said.

In a public appearance on Sunday, Gantz also made a series of personal attacks on the prime minister, accusing him of peddling in "extremism".

Gantz has spoken supportively of West Bank annexations and the Trump plan but said he would aim to move forward "in tandem" with regional Arab partners, a stand that could effectively bury the initiative.

"I will build a coalition of hope," Gantz said, vowing "national reconciliation" if elected premier.