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When it came down to a final issue for Israeli voters to ponder before Tuesday’s election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an extraordinary campaign pledge: If re-elected, he said on Saturday, he would annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Such a move would represent a dramatic, far-right policy change for Israel, staking a permanent claim over lands Palestinians demand for their own state.
Even if it is an election tactic to energize his nationalist base, Netanyahu’s annexation pledge is a fitting final chord to a decade of his administration, which began with a reluctant embrace of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ended with the chances of such an outcome dwindling to a new low point.
Since Netanyahu returned to office in 2009, the Jewish settler movement has grown in size and influence. That evolution was apparent last month in the West Bank city of Hebron.
In one of the West Bank’s tensest cities — where several hundred Israeli settlers live in guarded enclaves among some 200,000 Palestinians — Israelis dressed up in costume and paraded down the main street. It was the Jewish carnival holiday of Purim, but the settlers were celebrating more than just the religious festivities.
In January, they had successfully lobbied Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to expel an international observer group, tasked with patrolling Hebron and making Palestinians in the city feel safe after an Israeli settler killed 29 Palestinian worshippers there on Purim in 1994.
“We will not allow the continuation of an international force that acts against us,” Netanyahu said in a statement about the Temporary International Presence in Hebron.
Settlers accused the organization of causing friction and undermining Israeli rule in the city. But member countries of the group criticized the closure of the mission, saying the observers “promoted conflict resolution between Israelis and Palestinians” and helped prevent violence.
It was Netanyahu, during his first term in office in 1996, who had allowed for the founding of the unarmed civilian group.
“Apparently they were very temporary, and we are the permanent Israeli presence in Hevron,” said Yisrael Zeev, an Israeli settler in the city, calling the city by its Hebrew name.
Zeev drove a float in the parade dressed as an American farmer, with a swath of an observer’s uniform flapping from a pole like the flag of a vanquished enemy. Some settlers, including a candidate for national elections, dressed in costume as the expelled international observers.
“Everything’s going in the right direction,” Zeev said.
Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, and has occupied it ever since. Both Israelis and Palestinians have historical ties there.
In 2009, a few months after entering office, Netanyahu gave a speech that has become famous: For the first time, he publicly called for the creation of Palestinian state. He was facing pressure from then-President Obama, who advocated for a Palestinian state alongside Israel: a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But it didn’t stop Netanyahu from enlarging Jewish settlements in the occupied land. Apart from a 10-month settlement construction freeze at Obama’s request, Netanyahu’s government has continued to build homes for Israelis in the West Bank, leaving the map of what could be left for a Palestinian state looking like Swiss cheese.
About three-quarters of the construction has taken place in settlements deep in the West Bank “that Israel will probably need to evict in the framework of a two-state agreement,” said Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, a settlement watchdog group that examines aerial photos to count each settlement unit built. The homes range from spacious U.S. suburb-style homes to multifamily structures to trailers set up on a hill.
“Every year they build at least 2,000 units, which means thousands of new settlers every year in the West Bank,” Ofran said. “If we want to have peace, specifically where Netanyahu is building is in places that will be harder to compromise.”
The phenomenon of completely new settlements, which Israel previously stopped, was renewed during Netanyahu’s tenure. Settlers built a few dozen small outposts without government permission but with Israel largely turning a blind eye, Ofran said.
By the time Netanyahu ran for re-election in 2015, he vocally opposed a Palestinian state. Recently, according to Peace Now figures, Israel has advanced more plans for settlement construction, with little opposition from President Trump.
“The evolution isn’t just that [Netanyahu has] gone more to the right. It’s that the entire country has gone more to the right, because the Palestinians have killed a lot of their support in Israel,” said Israeli political analyst Reuven Hazan.
Most of the Israeli public doesn’t believe a peace deal is possible now, he said, with instability in the Middle East and a fractured Palestinian leadership divided between the militant Hamas in Gaza and a weakened Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
“The prospects of a peace partner or a viable peace process is not something that you can sell to the man or woman on the street, nor can you win an election on today,” Hazan said.
In the runup to Tuesday’s elections, two dozen senior government ministers and lawmakers released video statements endorsing a policy once considered fringe. Instead of negotiating with Palestinians about the West Bank, they’re calling for Israel to unilaterally annex parts of it.
Netanyahu resisted that move for years. But last month, following Trump’s backing of Israel’s annexation of land it captured from Syria in 1967, Netanyahu argued Israel has the right to keep land it seized in war.
In a TV interview on Saturday, just days before the elections, he pledged to “impose Israeli sovereignty” over Jewish settlements if re-elected, including isolated ones deep in the West Bank. In a weekend meeting with settler leaders, Netanyahu said he would do so “immediately” after the vote, said settler leader Yossi Dagan. The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem declined comment.
Palestinians see the chances of having their own state slipping away.
In Hebron, Palestinian resident Mufid Sharabati stands on his roof and counts the abandoned homes — about 10 that he can see. He says about 60 Palestinian families left the neighborhood in the last five years because life among Israeli settlers and soldiers has become too difficult.
There have been reports of settler harassment of Palestinians, as well as a recent wave of Palestinian stabbings against soldiers in the city. Sharabati says he must show Israeli soldiers his assigned number, 711, written in Sharpie on his ID cover, to enter the enclave he lives in alongside Israeli settlers. He is part of a civil society campaign called “Dismantle the Ghetto.”
Jewish settlers in Hebron say it is important they live in the city because of its biblical history — as the traditional site of the tomb of Abraham and other ancestors — and because it was home to an old Jewish community that ended when Arabs killed some 69 Hebron Jews in 1929.
Israelis often view Hebron as an extreme example of Israeli-Palestinian friction — the only place in the West Bank where Israeli settlers live under military guard in the heart of a city among Palestinians.
“There is nothing extreme about Hebron,” said Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence, a left-wing Israeli veterans group shunned by Netanyahu’s government for its work collecting unflattering soldier testimonies about their service in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. “Restrictions of movement do you have only in Hebron? All over the West Bank. Settler violence in Hebron? You have all over the West Bank. Military presence only in Hebron? All over the West Bank.”
The Palestinian-only part of Hebron is accessible from the settler area through a military checkpoint. Palestinian politics professor Assad Aweiwei stands on the Palestinian side. He’s not allowed to cross through.
“This is apartheid politics,” he said. “We must change the condition. We must be equal in this land. We can live together.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas failed to deliver on his promise of an independent Palestinian state, and a growing number of Palestinians — including Aweiwei — advocate one shared state with Israelis. Aweiwei says Palestinians would likely become the majority, like apartheid South Africa became a black-majority democracy.
That would put an end to Israel as a Jewish state.
In the last decade under Netanyahu, Israel has approved more settlement housing in Hebron, and invested in tourism, archaeology and educational tours to normalize the tense city for average Israelis who tend to avoid it — Israelis like Ophir Solonikov.
In late March, he visited Hebron for the first time on his 50 birthday and on the Purim holiday. He’s not a Netanyahu voter, not a settler, and not religious. But he sees the West Bank city — where Jewish and Muslim traditions say Abraham is buried — as a part of Israel.
Solonikov thinks Israel should pay Palestinians to leave — a policy promoted by a far-right libertarian candidate he supports, Moshe Feiglin, who is shaping up to be an influential kingmaker in the close election race.
“I dunno,” Solonikov said as holiday music blared, “if you do it in good will, it’s a good idea.”