Full Annexation or Limited Sovereignty: Netanyahu's Multiple Scenarios Have One Goal

Even the ideology behind annexation is informed by political considerations – and these are tied directly to the prime minister's corruption trial

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the area where a new neighborhood is to be built in the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa, February 20, 2020
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the area where a new neighborhood is to be built in the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa, February 20, 2020Credit: DEBBIE HILL/AP

Hyperactivity is discernible in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close circle. More and more scenarios are floated every week. The final goal of the scenarios is clear: To upgrade his political status with the intention of bolstering his public standing in his legal battle. The ideological declaration involved in realizing the partial annexation of the West Bank is also subordinate to those considerations.

Once more this week, Netanyahu continued to maneuver every which way. He’s worried about the possibility that the Trump administration will lose its limited appetite for the annexation initiatives, and also about the clash with the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, who this week expressed public opposition to the unilateral move. As the U.S. November election draws closer, the dispute is liable to resonate more powerfully. Nevertheless, Netanyahu is not backing away from his plan completely.

LISTEN: How Netanyahu could fudge annexation, hoodwink Gantz and cling on to power

On Wednesday, the prime minister showed Kahol Lavan leaders Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi the annexation maps for the first time. The two said they were against annexing areas that would include Palestinian localities without granting the residents full rights. Netanyahu is now apparently set on ensuring a smaller-scale annexation, perhaps even a symbolic one, just to avoid the appearance of having caved in completely.

Kahol Lavan's support is important to him because he believes that a move that will be perceived as being part of broader political agreement in Israel can reduce the risk of international sanctions. The White House also wants Kahol Lavan’s consent. To get it, Netanyahu is ready to pay the price of considerably reducing the proportion of the land to be annexed, even though the original idea was to take 30 percent of the area.

The struggle in Washington against the annexation plan intensified this week following a series of briefings for members of Congress by Jordan’s King Abdullah. Jordan's opposition to annexation has been known for months, since President Donald Trump unveiled his “deal of the century.” But against the backdrop of the looming date of the annexation and the White House’s thunderous silence on the subject, the king decided to take the stage himself in an effort to mobilize significant resistance to the move in the American capital.

Abdullah held at least seven briefing sessions with legislators within 36 hours, all of them via a secure video link. He invested the equivalent of almost a whole day’s work in the conversations, answered hundreds of questions from Congressional representatives and devoted an equal amount of time to personal talks with Republican and Democratic leaders. One message, short and catchy, was conveyed in every briefing: The annexation plan is dangerous, it threatens the region’s security and stability. For many of the lawmakers, who had been busy over the last couple of months with the coronavirus epidemic and the mass demonstrations across the United States, this was their first in-depth exposure to the scale of Jordan’s concerns.

One of the closest people to the king among the research institutes in Washington is Robert Satloff of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy. A few months ago, he interviewed Abdullah at a fundraising event in New York, in which the king declared that Israel-Jordan relations were at their lowest ebb ever. This week, Satfloff explained to Haaretz that Abdullah took advantage of the Congressional briefings to make it clear that Jordan is genuinely worried about the annexation idea, and that it’s not only a stance being presented for domestic policy purposes.

Annexation supporters, Satloff noted, are presenting a theory, which legislators are also hearing, to the effect that Jordan is against annexation publicly but that in private conversations, it admits that it prefers Israel to continue ruling in the Jordan Rift Valley. “That is to misunderstand the Jordanian position,” Satfloff said, and went on to elaborate: “The optimum Jordanian outcome is one in which, as part of a peace agreement, the Palestinians give a stamp of approval to some form of Israeli presence along the border. But unilateral Israeli annexation that disregards the Palestinians is different, and is much more problematic for the Jordanians.”  

Satloff added that Abdullah “is one of the most popular and respected international leaders on Capitol Hill, and one can even make the argument that today, the bipartisan consensus around supporting Jordan is as strong in Washington as the bipartisan consensus around supporting Israel.” His goal in these briefings is first of all to “get Republicans on board.” And if he can get “influential senators and members of the House to call the White House and share his concerns and ask questions about the wisdom of such a move, that could perhaps make a difference.”

Tamara Cofman Wittes, formerly responsible for the Middle East in the State Department and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Haaretz that Congress has an interest in maintaining stability in Jordan. Congress appropriates hundreds of millions of dollars to Jordan every year, she noted, and the lawmakers “know the contribution Jordan has made on intelligence cooperation, fighting ISIS, taking in refugees from Syria and other regional issues.” They have a stake here, she added, because “if the annexation move goes forward, and the consequences are like what the king is warning about, then Congress will be one of the first places where he will seek support and assistance.”

The Jordanians are not counting on the Trump administration to come to their aid. The king’s “advice on issues like the embassy move and the contents of the ‘deal of the century’ was not accepted,” Satloff says. Furthermore, the Jordanians are convinced that there are those in the Trump administration and the Israeli government who want to resurrect the “Jordan is Palestine” concept. That is what is turning the annexation idea into a truly existential threat for Amman.

Together with the Jordanian king’s briefings, opposition to annexation grew this week in the Democratic Party. At the beginning of the week, a group from the House distribute a letter against annexation that was addressed to Netanyahu, Gantz and Ashkenazi. Spearheading the move was Rep. Ted Deutsch (Dem., Florida), staunchly pro-Israel, who generally maintains close cooperation with the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC. This time, in a rare case, AIPAC found itself doing battle against an initiative by Deutch, who voted against the nuclear agreement with Iran and assailed the Obama administration for its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

An official source in AIPAC said that the lobby is against Deutch’s letter because it refers to a future action that hasn’t yet occurred and that might gain the blessing of the White House. The source added that AIPAC is not taking a stand for or against the annexation of settlements. The estimate in Congress is that close to 200 representatives will eventually sign the letter, meaning almost 90 percent of the Democrats. If Jerusalem hasn’t understood the scale of the problem Israel is coping with in the Democratic Party until now, those numbers might make the penny drop.

In the dark

Until the political plans become clear, the army is preparing for various escalation scenarios in the territories – from mass demonstrations to shooting attacks and even the possibility, less likely at the moment, that suicide attacks will resume for the first time in more than a decade.

The units that are included in the operational plans in the West Bank have already been drilled accordingly. If signs appear that the situation is heating up, a few battalions may be dispatched to the West Bank next week. A more serious level of violence will obligate the use of more units from the conscript army, from the forces undergoing training and from the instructional staff.

Next week the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service will hold a joint war game to drill the different possibilities. One of the questions that arose in the preliminary meetings had to do with a flare-up that might occur simultaneously in the Gaza Strip. That’s a phenomenon Israel hasn’t encountered for many years. Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip in 2014 was preceded by an escalation in the West Bank following the kidnapping of the three teens in the Etzion Bloc of settlements, but during the fighting in Gaza, the West Bank was quiet. 

At the moment the defense establishment is less troubled by the possibility that tensions around the annexation will expand into Lebanon as well. The domestic crisis in that country, centering on the economy, is becoming more acute, but for now it looks as though Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah is not looking to make Israel pay the consequences, and he is apparently too occupied with those troubles to extend genuine help to the Palestinians.

Huge uncertainty is hovering over everything. If there is one thing that the intelligence personnel have learned from the events of the past few decades – the two intifadas and then the Arab Spring – it’s the hopelessness of trying to guess the public’s behavior. The same cautionary note applies in the annexation case, too.

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