In a recent briefing to senior IDF officers, Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said he was issuing an alert to army commanders regarding a possible escalation in the occupied territories ahead of July. The alert was issued due to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex some settlements in the West Bank. At a meeting of the Likud Knesset faction on Monday, Netanyahu said he intends to apply Israeli law to settlements and the Jordan Valley as early as July 1. “We have a target date and we won’t change it,” declared the prime minister.
The IDF explained that it was usual for the chief of staff to instruct the army to be prepared, given that escalation is a likely scenario. Kochavi’s words related mainly to the West Bank, less so to the Gaza Strip. So far, the army has not sent reinforcements to the West Bank, despite a rise in the number of attempted attacks in the last two weeks. Towards July, the army is preparing to implement a plan to deal with a possible outbreak of violence. This plan includes a significant reinforcement of forces in the West Bank. Kochavi held another meeting on Monday, in which various possible scenarios were discussed.
Last September, when Netanyahu considered a unilateral annexation of the Jordan Valley, Kochavi and Shin Bet security agency chief Nadav Argaman warned him of the possible consequences, foremost of which is the possible damage to the peace treaty with Jordan. Given further opposition by other agencies, Netanyahu retracted his proposal, just before the second of three election cycles.
The Palestinian Authority recently announced the cessation of its security coordination with Israel, in protest against these annexation plans. The PA has taken similar publicized steps in the past during disputes with Israel, such as the one over placing metal detectors at the entrance to the Temple Mount in 2017, or another one last year over the PA’s financial assistance to security prisoners incarcerated in Israel.
Defense establishment sources in Israel say that in contrast to previous periods of tension, the break between the PA security apparatus and its Israeli counterparts is more significant this time. They say that Palestinian security officers will still deal with information concerning imminent attacks, but that cooperation in other areas, such as sharing intelligence gained in interrogating suspects, has been halted.
The IDF has cut down its operations involving the arrest of suspects in West Bank cities for two reasons. One is related to problems of coordination with the PA, the other to a wish to avoid confrontations during Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the month of Ramadan, which ended earlier this week. In one case, the IDF aborted its entry into Area A in the Qalqilya region out of concerns about clashing with PA forces.
Arik Barbing, who was the head of the Jerusalem and West Bank sector at the Shin Bet, told Haaretz that the PA recently evacuated its policemen from West Bank areas where there is a potential for clashes between the IDF and demonstrators. He says “this is notable in Hebron, among other areas. The Palestinian population perceives this as legitimization by the Authority to confront the IDF.”
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Two other veterans of the Palestinian arena, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Mordechai and Col. (res.) Michael Milstein wrote an article published on the website of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, stating, “What is sure is that this new threat by Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] is more concrete than ever, reflecting his dire strategic straits.” They write that Abu Mazen’s move was made on the backdrop of a grave economic crisis in the West Bank. The two writers believe there is a risk of a volatile mix of frustration, given the deteriorating situation, and a political crisis revolving around the U.S. administration’s “deal of the century” and Netanyahu’s annexation plans.
The politics of PM’s conspiracy theories
Netanyahu’s vexing speech at the courthouse this week, with masked and mute Likud ministers standing around him, illustrated the link between the political-legal arena and events in the diplomatic-security sphere. In his campaign against the legal system, the prime minister persistently crosses all red lines. How much attention will he devote to events in the territories, and how judicious can his decisions be while the legal noose tightens around his neck? His claim that he is a uniquely gifted person capable of handling everything in concert will soon be put to the test.
Despite the ideological wrappings, it’s obvious that Netanyahu is guided by political considerations in this matter too. Annexation could augment his support by the right wing during his trial, and could serve U.S. President Donald Trump well, by ensuring the support of evangelical voters in the upcoming presidential election in November. Within Likud, pressure for enacting a widespread annexation is being led by the new Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin.
On the other hand, Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden warned this week that annexation would choke off any hope for peace. The foreign ministers of the European Union issued similar warnings. It’s still unclear what weight any reservations about annexation by Netanyahu’s Kahol Lavan partners will carry, especially if this involves broad areas of the West Bank. The key person here may be the new foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, who as IDF chief of staff blocked another Netanyahu initiative, that one involving the bombing of Iranian nuclear sites in 2009-2010.
Eisenkot warming up
And what about Kahol Lavan chief Benny Gantz? The alternate prime minister and minister of defense, who made sure that cabinet members from his party restrain themselves from responding to Netanyahu’s horror show at the Jerusalem courthouse, has not yet come out swinging against annexation. Gantz, according to various sources, is currently occupied with entrenching his position, with all the attendant trappings. This includes setting up a new office for the unique position concocted in his honor, as well as ensuring a security detail convoy approaching in size and noise the one accompanying the real prime minister. The same insensitivity to wasting public funds that was evident in his last days in the army is now apparent in his political moves as well.
Nevertheless, Gantz took one significant step in appointing Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel as director general of the Defense Ministry. Eshel, who served under Gantz in the army’s general staff, accompanied senior Kahol Lavan officials in their negotiations with the Trump administration ahead of the presentation of Trump’s peace plan last January. When Gantz was chief of staff, Kochavi, who was then the head of Military Intelligence, was thought to have unusual influence over Gantz. The appointment of Eshel is meant to serve as a counterweight to the chief of staff. Eshel will coordinate the ministry’s work and know how to present alternative positions to those presented by the army. There has not been a director general of such stature in this ministry for years.
This will become a vital issue particularly in light of the huge budget deficit that has developed. Kochavi’s ambitions with his multiyear “Momentum” plan will be greatly impaired by the coronavirus crisis. Netanyahu supported the chief of staff’s recommendations, even enthusiastically, before the crisis erupted. Now the army will have to fight for its share of the budget in light of demands by the health system and the treasury’s shrinking maneuvering room. Incoming Finance Minister Yisrael Katz will find on his desk recommendations to slash the salaries and pensions of senior army officers. Eshel will have to tell Gantz what to fight for and where positions don’t have to dovetail with those held by Kochavi.
While all of this is happening, another former chief of staff is warming up his engines ahead of entering the political fray. Former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot hinted at this explicitly in an interview he gave to Yisrael Hayom last weekend. Even if this wasn’t said in that interview, one may assume two things: Eisenkot is headed for the center-left part of the spectrum. He is also not wagering on his friend Gantz fulfilling his ambition to replace Netanyahu as prime minister in 18 months, despite the agreement these two have signed.
U.S.-China rivalry intrudes
One saga ended on Tuesday. The ministries of finance and energy announced that the bid for building the Sorek 2 desalination plant was closed. The bid was won by the Israeli company IDE, beating the second bidder, the Hong Kong-based Hutchison. The gigantic installation, whose construction is estimated to cost more than $2 billion, will be built next to an earlier plant and close to the Palmachim air base and the Soreq Nuclear Research Center. As reported last year in Haaretz, the bid by Hutchinson was strongly opposed by the defense establishment due to Chinese control of this company. The head of the Defense Ministry’s security department, Nir Ben-Moshe, also expressed reservations about picking this company due to the proximity of the new plant to defense-related installations.
To this was added increasing American pressure, which apparently peaked during a visit to Israel by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo two weeks ago. In light of the exchange of accusations with Beijing regarding the spread of the coronavirus and the growing rivalry between China and the U.S., Washington is demanding that its allies refrain from signing big infrastructure contracts with China. What exactly transpired between Netanyahu and Pompeo is unknown. It’s reasonable to assume there were other good reasons to prefer the Israeli bidder over the Chinese one.
And yet, in the week preceding the opening of his trial, Netanyahu chose to devote several hours to talks with the Americans about this installation. Senior Israeli officials who were asked about this last week estimated that the final shaping of policy will be in the prime minister’s hands. When it comes to the U.S. and China, Netanyahu knows who Israel depends on more. The bid for Sorek 2 was decided, but further chapters in the American-Chinese rivalry in this region are expected, something that will require tough decisions by Israel.