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Netanyahu renews West Bank annexation vow ahead of elections

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu renewed a vow to annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank as the embattled leader kicked off a third election campaign in under a year Tuesday.

Addressing Likud Party supporters at a campaign launch event in Jerusalem, Netanyahu promised to "impose Israeli sovereignty on the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea," then pledged to annex all Israeli West Bank settlements "without exception."

Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians seek those territories as part of a future state. Most of the international community considers Israel's West Bank settlements illegal under international law.

Netanyahu had previously called for the annexation of the Jordan Valley ahead of September's repeat parliamentary elections. He and other Israeli officials contend the region is crucial to defending the country's eastern flank.

Annexation of the Jordan Valley, which makes up around a quarter of the West Bank and is the territory's agricultural heartland, would make a future Palestinian state unviable and would draw condemnation from the Palestinians and much of the international community.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's office said in a statement that the calls to annex areas of the West Bank "undermine the foundations of the peace process" and regional stability.

In her 2019 annual report, the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said her office was following Israel's proposed annexation of West Bank areas "with concern."

The U.S. has not commented on Israel's stated intentions to annex the region.

Both the prime minister and his main rival, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, have tried to pander to hard-line nationalist voters as the election approaches.

Israel faces an unprecedented third parliamentary election in under a year on March 2 after Netanyahu twice failed to form a governing coalition after April and September's votes.

Earlier on Tuesday, Gantz said his party would "work toward establishing sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and we will do so based on national agreement and in coordination with the international community."

Most political analysts see the March election as a referendum on Netanyahu's ability to lead following his indictment on a series of corruption charges in November. Netanyahu, Israel's longest serving prime minister, has denied any wrongdoing.