PROMINENT members of Israel's ruling Likud party have proposed annexing part of the West Bank as the battle for right-wing votes intensifies before the general election in less than three weeks.
A government minister, Yuli Edelstein, told a conference in Jerusalem that the lack of Israeli sovereignty over Area C - the 60 per cent of the West Bank under full Israeli military control in which all settlements are situated - ''strengthens the international community's demand for a withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines''.
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The chairman of the governing coalition, Ze'ev Elkin, said Israel should adopt a ''salami'' approach to annexation. ''We will try to apply sovereignty over as much as we can at any given moment,'' he said. A third Likud member, the extreme right-wing settler Moshe Feiglin, proposed that Israel should pay Palestinian families to leave the West Bank, using funds earmarked for security measures. ''We can give every family in Judea and Samaria [the biblical term for the West Bank] $500,000 to encourage to emigrate … This is the perfect solution for us,'' he said.
The comments, delivered at a conference organised by a radical settlers' organisation, ''removed the masks'' of the Likud-Beiteinu electoral alliance, said Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister and leader of a new centrist party, Hatnua. ''Likud-Beiteinu is extreme right wing, and will lead to the destruction of Zionism and the establishment of a binational state,'' she said. The right wing ''will make Israel into a boycotted, isolated and ostracised state''.
The Likud-Beiteinu alliance, led by the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Avigdor Lieberman, who recently resigned as foreign minister and faces a trial on fraud and breach of trust charges, is facing an unexpectedly strong challenge from Jewish Home, a party even further to the right and led by Mr Netanyahu's former chief of staff Naftali Bennett.
Recent polls have indicated that Jewish Home is gaining votes at the expense of Likud-Beiteinu. The latest survey, published in Haaretz on Wednesday, gave the alliance 34 out of 120 parliamentary seats, compared with 42 currently held by its two constituent parties. Jewish Home, with its policy to annexe Area C, is predicted to take 14 seats, and could overtake Labour to become the second biggest party.
Mr Netanyahu is still on course to form the next coalition government. But the strength of Jewish Home's vote is likely to give it leverage in the coalition horse-trading that will follow the election on January 22. Many observers believe that a string of recent announcements by Mr Netanyahu about expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is an attempt to contain the loss of votes to Jewish Home.
According to the Haaretz poll, the right-wing bloc of parties is set to win 67 seats in the election, while the centre-left bloc, including Israeli-Arab parties, is on course to take 53 seats.