Benjamin Netanyahu has announced he will move ahead with a highly controversial plan to build settlements east of Jerusalem, in an apparent offering to hardline nationalist voters less than a week before a general election.
Israel’s prime minister said he would reopen the long-dormant project to build 3,500 homes for Jewish settlers in one of the most sensitive areas of the occupied West Bank.
The blueprint for the 12 sq km (4.6 sq mile) site, named E1, was drafted in 1995 but has been repeatedly frozen by successive Israeli governments after strong international condemnation. It would expand the large settlement of Maale Adumim to in effect connect it with Jerusalem.
Palestinians and their global backers argue the plan would virtually cut the West Bank into two enclaves and completely encircle Palestinian neighbourhoods in the holy city. It has long been seen as an impassable barrier to any viable future Palestinian state.
“I have given instructions to immediately publish … the plan to build 3,500 housing units in E1,” Netanyahu said in a speech on Tuesday. “This had been delayed for six or seven years.”
On Monday, Israelis will vote in a Knesset election in which the rightwing leader – the longest-serving in the country’s history – hopes to emerge victorious with backing from settlers and their supporters.
He will need to win big to guarantee his political future. Two inconclusive elections in the past 12 months have resulted in stalemates, with neither Netanyahu nor his main rival, Benny Gantz, able to form a government.
To rally his base, Netanyahu made similar expansionist pledges before both votes. In April, he said he would annex all current settlements, and in September, he promised to go further, by claiming sovereignty over a third of the entire West Bank.
The US presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama both objected to the E1 plan. In 2012, Israel resurrected the idea as a retaliatory measure to the UN recognition of Palestine. That move was halted following a diplomatic crisis in which the UK, France, Sweden, Spain and Denmark summoned the respective Israeli ambassadors to their countries.
It is unclear if there will be a similar response this time. Donald Trump’s administration has backed many of Israel’s claims to the Palestinian territories. While the UK government has repeated that settlements are illegal, it has also praised Trump’s intentions for the region.