Considering what’s at stake, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t displaying much concern or taking any unusual steps. The number of new coronavirus infections has been surging, economists are warning of a prolonged and widespread crisis, and the freebie newspaper that’s close to him is trumpeting daily headlines urging Israel not to miss the historic opportunity to restore areas of the homeland to our full sovereignty. The prime minister is actually spending plenty of time in his office, keeping his distance from the Knesset and watching lots of television, even if not at the level of commitment that characterizes his pal, U.S. President Donald Trump.
The number of security discussions he holds has diminished of late. Netanyahu did not trust the previous defense minister, Naftali Bennett, and delegated few powers to him. But he’s granting more leeway to the new minister (and alternate prime minister), Benny Gantz. Some of the few discussions that are being held are focusing primarily on the annexation plan in the West Bank, but as far as is known they have not gone into great detail as yet. The security cabinet rarely meets. The meetings about the coronavirus have shifted into higher gear lately, because of the renewed rise in the incidence of disease. But these meetings have dealt primarily with toughening the policy of fines and with the restoration of invasive Shin Bet security service tracking, despite the pronounced opposition of the Shin Bet itself.
Netanyahu doesn’t really need Gantz and his Kahol Lavan party to get his annexation law passed in the Knesset. Even without them he’s likely to command a significant majority, thanks to the yes votes of two opposition parties, Yamina and Yisrael Beiteinu. The problem lies in article 28 of the coalition agreement between Likud and Kahol Lavan, which stipulates that Netanyahu and Gantz will work in full agreement with the United States in regard to the Trump plan, “including on the issue of the maps with the Americans and with international dialogue on the subject.” The Americans have made it clear that they want the annexation decision to be made on the basis of a governmental consensus in Israel. But less than week before the target date of July 1 that was set for the start of the annexation process, the open question is what Washington wants, and even more, who decides what it wants.
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In retrospect, one of the most amazing developments of recent years is the success of the Yesha Council of settlements in hijacking American foreign policy in the Middle East. That Trump’s confidant and friend of the settlers David Friedman insinuated himself into the position of U.S. ambassador to Israel has played a major role in stirring the current brouhaha. Friedman has pushed tirelessly for annexation. This week he was in Washington for consultations. The Israeli embassy in the American capital has no idea what the ambassador is planning, what the president will decide or what the third side of the triangle, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, will decide on the subject.
Trump’s adviser, Kellyanne Conway, on Wednesday promised a “big announcement” by the president on the annexation issue. Beyond that, it was impossible to infer anything about Trump’s intentions from what she said. But it seems Netanyahu is already planning to execute his move next week.
The assessment that’s increasingly taking hold in the defense establishment and in the political arena is that Netanyahu is considering a symbolic, limited annexation, possibly of the Ma’aleh Adumim area, which is close to Jerusalem and deep within the Israeli national consensus. In the prime minister’s meeting with the settlers’ leaders, the idea was raised of a two-pronged annexation. But a good many in the Yesha leadership are opposed to a partial annexation (of even 30 percent of the territory), suspecting that Netanyahu will not keep his promise of a second annexation in the future. They have already been stung by him in the past.
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Netanyahu’s political gain from annexation is now in doubt, as the strategic risks pile up. The United Nations and the European Union have stepped up their opposition to the plan. The Defense Ministry, which this week tallied the 2019 security exports ($7.2 billion) is worried about a possible freeze on additional deals in Europe, if annexation goes ahead. Many eyes in the Middle East are looking to Jordan, which is extremely perturbed about possible Israeli annexation in the West Bank and particularly in the Jordan Rift Valley. The kingdom is highly unstable, in the light of an economic crisis and ongoing corruption scandals. The leaders of the Gulf states, who are very friendly to Netanyahu, will not forgive him if annexation snowballs into a threat to King Abdullah’s regime.
Netanyahu appears to be preparing a possible alibi for freezing annexation, by blaming Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. In practice, his threat to bring about a new election over the annexation issue, which is occasionally echoed in Israel Hayom, his freebie mouthpiece, is of doubtful credence. It’s not annexation that interests Israel’s voters, it’s the coronavirus and more pointedly the vast economic crisis that the pandemic has engendered.
Dismantling the coalition now, on the basis of flattering polls, carries a risk: Public opinion could shift in autumn, when the coronavirus will still be with us and the economic situation will be even worse. In the meantime, the prime minister is conducting a rearguard battle against the proliferation of new investigations against him and waiting for an opportunity to bring about the desirable solution for him: victory in a new election, followed by the enactment of legislation that will halt the legal proceedings against him that have already begun.
In Gantz’s meeting with military correspondents last Tuesday, it was impossible not to notice the alternate PM’s dismal situation. Gantz knows that his joining up with Netanyahu wounded him mortally in the eyes of his voters. It’s highly unlikely that he will be able to position himself as any sort of alternative in the next election, whenever it takes place. At present he’s operating on borrowed time. He hopes that those who voted for him will somehow ultimately be persuaded that, given the circumstances he faced, and in view of his fear of a sweeping Netanyahu victory in a fourth election, he did the right thing, after all. But his few accomplishments – stabilizing the internal commotion in the Justice Ministry, perhaps injecting a modicum of restraint in the annexation discussions – will not be enough to offset the disappointment of legions of his voters.
One phone call
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could have undone this tangled situation with one phone call to Donald Trump. But for the past two years, since the U.S. embassy was moved to Jerusalem, he has been locked into a feeling of affront. Even before that, in December 2017, he severed all contact with the administration and accused the president publicly of not being a fair broker between Israel and the Palestinians. Senior officials in the Israeli defense establishment urged Abbas, even recently, to swallow his pride and call the White House. He is refusing. If he were to do so, the idea of unilateral annexation would likely be removed from the agenda, at least temporarily, and Washington would concentrate its efforts on trying to show at least a semblance of progress in the negotiations ahead of the November presidential election.
The view in the defense establishment is that Abbas wants to put a stop to the annexation by any means, but thinks that he will be able to achieve this by means of threats and brinkmanship, without bringing about the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and a war. In the war game conducted by the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet this week, the possibility was also raised that Abbas will make good on his threat and “toss the keys” — hand over responsibility of the West Bank — to Israel. The fact is that Israel doesn’t have enough money to manage the affairs of the West Bank again. The international community is not likely to mobilize to that end. About two years ago, the defense establishment carried out an internal audit of units whose task is to reassume civilian management of the West Bank should the need arise. Not surprisingly, they turned out to be hollow bodies, which over the years slipped down to the bottom of the IDF food chain. They have no means, commanders or enough trained forces to execute the mission.
The Palestinian public is not yet mobilized for the anti-annexation campaign, despite a rally organized by the PA this week in Jericho. The economic situation in the West Bank is reasonable, compared with the neighboring countries. Unemployment is not yet high in Palestinian terms (14.5 percent), and the chief problem involves the payment of salaries in the public sector, as they were slashed by 60 percent due to the renewed dispute with Israel over the tax payments Israel collects for the Palestinians. The prevailing view in Israel is that an annexation declaration, even on a small scale, will trigger a response in the West Bank, though no one is clear about the force of that response.
The Tanzim militia, associated with Fatah, is considered a key player, as this column has already noted. At the end of the second intifada, Abbas and the Palestinian prime minister at the time, Salam Fayyad, spearheaded a move which made all bearers of arms subordinate to the PA (“One hand holding one weapon” was the slogan). Recently, to enforce discipline during the epidemic, armed members of the militia have been sent back into the streets, as something like Fatah’s deployment on the ground. A large number of violent incidents ensued. Those rifles, under extreme circumstances, are liable to be aimed once more at Israel – in the first stage in the form of attacks against settlers on the West Bank roads.
In that situation, Hamas will not linger behind, certainly when the opportunity presents itself to pull the rug from under the PA in the West Bank. Hamas would like to maintain quiet in the Gaza Strip, but that decision is not entirely in its hands. An annexation declaration is likely to generate rocket attacks by Islamic Jihad and other organizations. Hamas’ response will depend on two elements: public sentiment in the Gaza Strip regarding annexation, and the intensity of the Israeli military response against Islamic Jihad.
In the meantime, echoing Israel, the PA is worried about a steep rise in coronavirus infections. In the absence of a lockdown in Israel, the Palestinian dilemma about what to do concerning the workers inside Israel becomes more acute, as some of them bring the coronavirus with them when they return home. In an unusual move, the PA this week asked Israel’s Arab citizens not to shop in the West Bank, for fear they will contribute to the spreading of the coronavirus. Readiness to forgo millions of shekels in income shows just how uptight Ramallah is.