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Israeli leaders promote West Bank annexation in wake of soldier's killing

Discovery of 19-year-old's body prompts politicians to call for extending Israel's sovereignty, a discourse analysts say is now in the mainstream
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the press at the site where an off-duty Israeli soldier was found dead with stab wounds near the settlement of Migdal Oz in the occupied West Bank (AFP)

At first, Israel's response to finding 19-year-old Dvir Sorek's body near a settlement in the West Bank on Thursday was the same as previous times a soldier had been killed in the occupied territory.

Israeli security forces fanned out across the neighbouring towns and villages, blocking off main roads between the cities of Hebron and Bethlehem.

Meanwhile, Israeli leaders issued statements sending their condolences to Sorek's family, condemning the attack and Palestinian factions, and vowing retribution.

Notable, however, was the direction the discourse turned.

Hours after the manhunt began, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended a cornerstone-laying ceremony in the Beit El settlement. There he spoke of building hundreds of housing units and deepening Israeli roots - "in all its parts".

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"Our mission is to establish the people of Israel in our land, to secure our sovereignty in our historic homeland," Netanyahu said.

Though settlement building and increased Jewish presence has long been a common refrain in right-wing Israeli politics, extending sovereignty and indeed full annexation of the West Bank is becoming an increasingly aired discussion.

And Israel's premier wasn't the only leader to take Sorek's death in the Gush Etzion settlement block as a cue to bring it up once more.

Parliamentary Speaker Yuli Edelstein said Israel's response to the attack must be decisive: "The application of Israeli sovereignty in all localities - and Gush Etzion first."

Naftali Bennet, the former education minister and prominent member of the newly former United Right slate, also waded in.

"Today - yes, today - Israeli law in Gush Etzion must be applied through a government decision," he tweeted.

Senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi said Netanyahu was "not only destroying the two-state solution, he is destroying all chances of peace".

"This is a total game changer," she told AFP.

Reaching the mainstream

Annexation burst into the mainstream in earnest in April, days before Israeli's parliamentary elections, when Netanyahu made a play for right-wing votes by pledging to apply sovereignty in West Bank settlements.

The West Bank has officially been under military occupation since it was captured in 1967, and all settlements since built there in contravention of international law operate under a separate administrative system to Israeli communities within the country's 1948 boundaries.

But in recent months, the right wing has sought to extend Israeli sovereignty and annex parts or all of the territory, mirroring moves made in other areas captured in 1967, such as East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Those annexations have never been recognised by the international community.

"It is certainly meaningful that the debate has become mainstream," Meron Rapoport, a veteran Israeli political analyst, tells Middle East Eye. "The words 'annexation' and 'sovereignty' can be heard said by politicians daily."

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The debate isn't restricted to Israeli settlements alone.

Earlier this week, leader of the far-right United Right slate Ayelet Shaked called on her list's members to declare their commitment to extending Israel sovereignty over "the territories of Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley," referring to all of the West Bank.

With the United Right on course to win around 10 seats in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, such discourse could become a prominent part of a future right-wing government following Israel's 17 September elections.

Already, many in Netanyahu's Likud party are calling for the same.

"The majority of Likud MPs speak about sovereignty, annexation and development of settlements," Rapoport says.

"But don't forget that it's election time, when politicians back more and more radical positions."

For Rapoport, annexation without providing citizenship for the West Bank's Palestinian residents - which number around 2.8 million - would officially make Israel an apartheid state. But, he says, were the right wing to fail, it would pose serious questions.

'Don't forget that it's election time, when politicians back more and more radical positions'

- Meron Rapoport, political analyst

"Annexation is one of the right wing's chief political agendas. So if it fails to gain approval to annex the West Bank, it would cause a huge crisis amid the right."

Salah Khawaja, a Palestinian anti-occupation activist, says annexation is already in motion on the ground.

He notes that much of the Palestinian population once residing in Area C, the territory directly administered by Israel, has been pushed elsewhere in West Bank due to a combination of Israeli policies.

Meanwhile, talk of a two-state solution is totally absent.

"Israeli right-wing parties no longer talk about a Palestinian state," he tells MEE.

"Annexation is becoming institutionalised."

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