Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was “confident” he would be able to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank this summer, with support from the US.
Speaking on Sunday to an online gathering of evangelical Christian supporters of Israel, Mr Netanyahu said US president Donald Trump’s Middle East plan envisioned turning over Israel’s dozens of settlements, as well as the strategic Jordan Valley, to Israeli control.
“A couple of months from now, I’m confident that that pledge will be honoured, that we will be able to celebrate another historic moment in the history of Zionism,” Mr Netanyahu said.
Israeli annexation of West Bank territory would be highly controversial, drawing widespread international condemnations and extinguishing any lingering hopes of establishing a viable independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The Palestinians, with wide international backing, seek the entire West Bank as part of an independent state.
They have already threatened to cancel existing peace agreements if Mr Netanyahu moves forward with his plan, while the European Union foreign policy chief said annexation would be a violation of international law and force the bloc to “act accordingly”. The UN’s Middle East envoy said such a step would “ignite” the region.
But Mr Netanyahu and his hard-line base are eager to move ahead while Mr Trump remains in office.
Annexation would be popular with Mr Trump’s evangelical base as he seeks to shore up support ahead of a difficult reelection battle.
Mr Netanyahu reached a power-sharing deal with his main rival, Benny Gantz, last week.
Although Mr Gantz, a former Israeli military chief, has given only lukewarm support for West Bank annexation, their coalition agreement allows Mr Netanyahu to present the plan to his cabinet and to parliament for fast-track approval.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war, and its settlements are now home to some 500,000 Israelis, in addition to over 200,000 Israelis living in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.
After Mr Trump unveiled his Middle East plan in January, Mr Netanyahu pledged to begin annexing territory immediately.
But the Trump administration quickly delayed the plan, and the sides set up a joint committee to formulate a plan together.
Mr Netanyahu addressed a conference marking the 100th anniversary of the San Remo Conference, a post-First World War gathering in Italy that helped lay the foundations for Israel’s establishment in 1948.