The declaration by an Israeli prime minister of an intent to unilaterally annex settlements, although not entirely unprecedented, is nevertheless a major change in formal Israeli policy. Benjamin Netanyahu’s  specific choice to designate the Jordan Valley as a target for potential annexation is strategically savvy — so much so that his main rival, Benny Gantz, countered the prime minister’s declaration by essentially agreeing with him, saying, “in any scenario, the Jordan Valley will remain under Israeli control.” Why the Jordan Valley, and why the seeming domestic consensus on the matter in the face of international outrage?

For many Israelis, even on the center-left, not all settlements are created equal. Some are considered just as harmful and illegitimate (or at least as redundant) as non-Israeli supporters of the two-state solution see them. This is the case with the majority of settlements, as these were built by the religious messianic movement of Gush Emunim. Other settlements, though, have a deep connection to the history of mainstream Zionism and are taken to be more legitimate.

The two most striking examples of the second, “mainstream” category are East Jerusalem and Gush Etzion, which most Israelis associate with the pre-1948 Jewish settlements there. Those settlements were legitimately established and then lost, with their defenders massacred on the eve of the declaration of independence on May 14, 1948. Gush Etzion became further bound to general Zionism by the mythological sacrifice of the Lamed-He, a convoy of 35 Palmach fighters killed on their way to supply the Gush. Despite Gush Etzion consisting of national-religious settlements today, its communities aren’t considered as “true” settlements since so many Israelis believe they are “ours by right.” The same is true of the Golan Heights and the Jordan Valley.

The Jordan Valley’s significance is not in the number of settlers there. There are actually relatively few of them (only about 15,000), nor is it for these settler’s political power, of which they have little. The Jordan Valley is different than other settlements because it began as a project of the Labor governments which saw the region (mostly) as a security buffer. These settlements were part of the Allon Plan, named for the famed general and government minister Yigal Allon, who after the Six Day War proposed that Israel establish a barrier of Jewish settlements to protect itself from a conventional military threat from its eastern border.

Strategic realities have shifted since Allon’s days, but the idea that Israel has a vital interest in physical military presence in the Jordan Valley persists. Over the years, proposals were made for the gradual replacement of physical Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley with alternative measures including international forces and surveillance or border control technology, but these are rarely publicly discussed and few in Israel are familiar with them. Fewer still distinguish between the possible need for a security-related presence and the complete superfluity of civilian settlements in the area.

For seasoned observers, then, it is clear why Netanyahu didn’t suggest annexing the messianic mountain-top settlements of the Shomron. Instead, even as he is vying for the far-right vote, Bibi went for what codes to most Israelis as an area that “has to stay in our hands.” In so doing, he challenged his rivals to explain why such a move would be reckless or illegitimate. Even if they believe that it is, they would have to undertake a longer project of educating the Israeli public on the matter — one that cannot happen just a week before the elections.