Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly cited July 1 as the official date for releasing the plan for annexing the settlements in the West Bank. But the closer that date gets, the more questions arise.
There’s still no final map, still no green light from the United States and still no agreement between Likud and Kahol Lavan. Even the exhausting meetings about extending the school year look more promising right now that the contacts about applying Israeli law in the territories.
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Still, over the past week the assessment by all those involved in the matter is that a more limited move is still on the table. For Kahol Lavan to support such a step would depend on framing it as part of a broader diplomatic plan with international and regional support, or at least silence, perhaps even accompanied by gestures to the Palestinians, and not as a unilateral move. Politically, this is a nearly impossible task.
No one forced Netanyahu to cite a date so exact that any delay will immediately be considered a failure. He painted himself into this corner, just as he did when he hastened to promise a declaration on unilateral annexation immediately after the release of the “deal of the century” in Washington in January. Since then, not only has the head of the plan’s team, Jared Kushner, applied the brakes, but Benny Gantz has joined the government.
Once it became clear to the Americans that there was no chance that Netanyahu could set up a government without Gantz, the administration has consistently conditioned its recognition of the Israeli annexation of the settlements on Kahol Lavan’s agreement. The administration repeatedly explained to both partner-rivals, even before the plan was released, that it could not support a plan so controversial internationally if there wasn’t at least broad support within the Israeli government itself.
As a result, in recent weeks U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, an enthusiastic supporter of annexation, has been vigorously mediating between Netanyahu and Gantz to get them to agree on the character and timing of an announcement. This week Friedman got Netanyahu, Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi together for a discussion on the issue. Kushner, his adviser Avi Berkowitz, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer and Friedman’s right-hand man, Aryeh Lightstone, take turns participating in these discussions. According to sources familiar with their content, to date only one meeting of all those that have taken place could be described as “serious.”
Netanyahu was forced to admit at a Likud faction meeting Monday that annexation is being delayed because the map, which supposedly has been worked on since January by a joint Israeli-American team, still isn’t ready. But the problem isn’t the map or the date that everyone is so focused on. Their absence reflects the absence of a plan of action. The question right now is not whether or when there will be an annexation, but what annexation even means to all the parties.
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Responding to questions at the Likud faction meeting, Netanyahu added that he himself doesn’t know what Kahol Lavan’s position is on the issue, but “it’s possible” that they are in favor of a partial annexation that would include the Jordan Valley and the settlement blocs. Netanyahu said things in the same vein to a group of reservists who support annexation, telling them that because of a lack of agreement within the cabinet, it’s possible that annexation would take place in stages, rather than all at once.
Netanyahu talked about “stages” as far back as January, in a briefing he gave to journalists at Blair House in Washington after the Trump plan was unveiled. But since then, there hasn’t been a single stage of anything.
Kahol Lavan did not repudiate Netanyahu’s remarks on Monday, nor has it ruled out in private conversations possibly applying Israeli law in a more limited fashion than that theoretically allowed by the Trump plan (some 30 percent of the West Bank land area). From their perspective, everything depends on one condition, which they are careful to stress both publicly and privately: that the move not be unilateral but in coordination as much as possible with the international community and the countries in the region, particularly Jordan and the Gulf states.
For those who wonder how international agreement is possible for a step that not a single country has expressly supported, Kahol Lavan explains that it is prepared to discuss the various scenarios that have accumulated, but only if they meet the following criteria: Every move to apply sovereignty must be inseparable from accepting the Trump peace plan as a basis for negotiations; the move must be limited, proportionate and preserve existing and future peace agreements; applying partial sovereignty must come along with some kind of gestures to the Palestinian side, and that there must be no annexation of land where Palestinians live.
In other words, Israeli law will apply only to those areas where Israelis live, or where no one lives at all. They are also demanding to hear all the positions of all the defense, diplomatic and regional players on the possible consequences of whatever plan is chosen.
Gantz, speaking on Monday before the American Jewish Committee, called Trump's proposal a "great plan," adding "We have to work on the basis of it and move forward with regional partners, with local partners, of course with consensus within the Israeli society, and with full coordination and backup with the United States."
It seems as if the conditions being posed by Kahol Lavan for annexation make a compromise between the party and Netanyahu almost impossible. Yet this compromise it what the Americans require right now as a condition of their support. What’s more, Netanyahu keeps saying, including at the Likud faction meeting, that he has no intention of bringing the entire Trump plan, including recognition in principle for the idea of a Palestinian state, to the Knesset or the cabinet for approval – only the steps toward annexation.
However, although it seems increasingly that nothing is going to happen on July 1, it might still be possible to reach understandings down the road based on this outline – for example, if there is a counter-gesture to the Palestinians in return, which will allow the move to be presented in a different light to the countries of the region and then to the other international players. Even EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borell stressed Monday that along with firm opposition to annexation, the Europeans support the Trump program as a basis for returning the parties to the negotiations. In such a case, Kahol Lavan will not necessarily reject outright ideas like annexation in the Jordan Valley, Gush Etzion or Ma’aleh Adumim. However, all the parties involved in the discussions emphasize that no specific area has been discussed yet.
And while Kahol Lavan hopes to find a compromise that will miraculously turn a unilateral annexation into a diplomatic process, under the coalition agreement Netanyahu can always try to solicit American support for a more limited plan that he would bring to a vote on his own. He has a majority. It’s depends only on him and the Americans. If that happens, no one will be able to resolve the mess Kahol Lavan finds itself in – except perhaps the Palestinians if they agree to come to the table. What is certain is that for everyone except Netanyahu, what will help is a slow and consistent postponement of the July 1 deadline – to never.