There are still two weeks to go before the Israeli government is set to begin working on “applying sovereignty” to parts of the West Bank, as Benjamin Netanyahu wants annexation to be called on July 1. There are no maps, timetables or any details of how, when and where annexation will happen. If it happens. What we do have however is a blame game, already, over who is to blame for annexation not happening.
On Monday, two possible targets were already being marked out. The main headline on the front page of the Netanyahu-worshiping freesheet Israel Hayom quoted anonymous “sources in Likud” attacking the settlers saying “Opposition is a historic mistake” and “If there is no application of sovereignty it will only be because of them – they’re crazy.”
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This was an extraordinary broadside against part of the right wing, specifically the part which has rejected the Trump plan due to the fact that it includes not just annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank but the possibility of a Palestinian state (if the Palestinians stay on their best behavior) on the remaining 70 percent. It would not have been the Bibi paper’s headline if it hadn’t been approved by Netanyahu and reflected his message. It was clearly casting them in advance as the culprits for foiling annexation. But not only them.
The same evening that headline was published, Likud sources began blaming Defense Minister and alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz as well. Apparently, Netanyahu had offered to show him in a meeting on Monday afternoon the annexation map but Gantz had refused to look. “We don’t know what Gantz’s position even is,” they said. The problem with this version of events is that the meeting between the two had been about coalition arrangements, not annexation, which only came up as Gantz was about to leave, and that there is no map. Netanyahu himself has said on various occasions in recent days that the annexation map is still being drawn up by the joint U.S.-Israeli committee.
Gantz is indeed wary of annexation and has stated in the past that it should only go ahead “in coordination” with the international community and Israel’s Arab neighbors. Netanyahu wants the narrative to be that Gantz was simply too indecisive, at a point where he needed to begin proving himself as a statesman. And that it was his indecision which cost Israel the annexation.
Netanyahu needs an exit option from his emergency national-unity government with Gantz. He may not use it. But he needs it at the very least as a credible threat to hold over Gantz’s head. Gantz’s lack of enthusiasm for annexation could either serve as an excuse for holding early elections, if Netanyahu decides that his strong polling over the last three months makes such a risk worthwhile, or just be part of a longer-term strategy of establishing Gantz as a weak leader, totally unfit to replace him in 17 months.
But if Netanyahu is set on blaming Gantz for the failed annexation, why blame the settlers as well?
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Netanyahu has no problem in preparing multiple narratives of guilt. Gantz is an immediate threat due to the coalition agreement and needs to be smeared (in addition to all the smears in the three election campaigns, which have been washed away somewhat now that Netanyahu is serving in government alongside the man his campaign branded a dangerous pervert), but there are threats on the right as well. Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Ya’alon, are all senior right-wingers now outside the coalition who would gladly take Netanyahu down if they could. And they may be in a position to do so in the not-too-distant future. Netanyahu needs to make it clear to the right wing that if they don’t agree with him, then they are the ones who will be blamed for failure to implement annexation. It’s too big an issue to use for blaming only Gantz.
Gantz and the settlers are just the most obvious targets, but missing out on annexation will give Netanyahu other convenient candidates for blame. The man taking the most heat right now from him, on seemingly unrelated matters is Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit who had the temerity to (finally) charge him with bribery and fraud. Netanyahu and his proxies have been gunning for Mendelblit in recent weeks by exhuming obscure details of a 10-year-old case he was involved in, which few remember or even understand. Soon there will be more convenient ammunition to use against him.
The next stage in the blame game will be accusations that the real obstacles to annexation were Mendelblit and other senior justice officials who found piddling legal excuses to delay the sovereignty process until it was too late. The refrain will go something like: They had time to investigate and prosecute trumped-up allegations against the prime minister and his family, but not to facilitate the Jewish People’s return to its homeland.
Six months from now, when hopefully Donald Trump will no longer be president, the blame game will come full circle when he is the one Netanyahu blames for putting the prospect of annexation on the table in his deal of the century, but not being serious enough to see it through. Netanyahu then will need to be distancing himself from Trump when Israelis finally wake up and realize how damaging the Trump years actually were to the long-term prospects of the strategic relationship with the United States.
And then of course there’s Joe Biden. He will be blamed for having blocked annexation as well. If Trump does win re-election, the beaten Biden will be demonized for interfering and having motivated the Democrats to raise objections. And if by then it’s President Biden, Netanyahu will have a clear interest in signaling to the right wing how powerful and hostile Biden is, to excuse in advance any future capitulations. There’ll be very little annexation, but plenty of blame to go around.