HEBRON, West Bank (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a rare visit to a core ultra-nationalist Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday, pledging a permanent Israeli presence there as he tries to rally right-wing votes for an election two weeks away.
With polls showing Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party neck-and-neck with centrist rivals, he has been playing up his hard tack against territorial concessions to the Palestinians pushed by international peacemaking efforts in recent decades.
Such diplomacy in the past saw Israel making way for limited Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank. That included the biblical city of Hebron, parts of which Netanyahu, during his first term in the late 1990s, handed over to the Palestinians while Israel retained control over a hardline settler enclave.
In what the settlers said was his first visit to Hebron since, Netanyahu spoke at a government-sponsored event in front of the Cave of the Patriarchs - a site sacred to both Jews and Muslims, where an armed settler killed 29 Palestinians in 1994.
The Israeli leader’s speech marked a different massacre - of 67 Hebron Jews by Arabs in 1929, under then British rule - an incident he described as having shaped his hawkish policymaking.
“We are not coming to dispossess anyone, but nor will anyone dispossess us,” he said, referring to Israel’s settlement of the West Bank since capturing it in a 1967 war, and the Palestinian goal of statehood there as well as in East Jerusalem and Gaza.
“Hebron will not be cleansed of Jews ... We are not strangers in Hebron. We will remain in it forever.”
In other public statements, Netanyahu has pledged to extend Israeli jurisdiction to the settlements, a potential precursor to annexation. Most world powers deem the settlements illegal.
The Palestinians, whose peace talks with Israel broke down in 2014 and who have spurned U.S. President Donald Trump’s bids to renew them, saw a provocation in Netanyahu’s Hebron visit.
“We warn against the grave consequences of this raid by Netanyahu, who is trying to win the votes of the Israeli extreme-right,” Nabil Abu Rdainah, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said in a statement.
“This grave escalation ... aims to drag the region into a religious war.”
Around 1,000 heavily guarded settlers live among 200,000 Palestinians in Hebron. In Israel’s last election, in April, just 7.5 percent of Hebron settlers voted Likud, with most backing more rightist parties, census data show. Despite Likud’s overall gains, Netanyahu failed to form his fifth coalition government, triggering a repeat election set for Sept. 17.
The Trump administration plans to unveil a new peace plan after the election. U.S. officials have said they expect compromises from both sides. The Palestinians, however, are shunning Washington, accusing it of bias over a number of pro-Israel initiatives and settlement visits by U.S. envoys.
In a sign of his diplomatic reach, Netanyahu plans to visit Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin next week, an Israeli official said.
Netanyahu’s office also said he would fly to London on Thursday for talks with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne