Israel stands before one of the most difficult periods it has ever known, just about a perfect storm.
The political and judicial crisis surrounding Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial has barely begun. Having successfully defused the political obstacles to his ongoing rule, the premier is now conducting an unbridled campaign to undermine the judicial system and rule of law, in order to save himself from a likely prison sentence. No norm, no institution, is sacrosanct.
LISTEN: How Netanyahu could fudge annexation, hoodwink Gantz and cling on to power
The campaign is abetted by Netanyahu’s silent co-conspirators in the Likud and feckless coalition partners from Benny Gantz's Kachol Lavan party. The fundamental pillars of Israeli democracy will be shaken to the core.
Concomitantly, the coronavirus epidemic has caused an unprecedented economic crisis in Israel. Unemployment stands at a horrifying 25 percent, governmental stimulus packages have had a disappointing impact on the economy so far, and the global economy is in a severe depression.
In the coming weeks, as unemployment benefits run out and the public begins to fully appreciate the depths of the crisis, the fundamental pillars of Israeli society will also be severely shaken. It is not for nothing that Netanyahu sought to include Kachol Lavan in a coalition of "national unity," to share the political blame.
Israel also stands before a number of national security challenges, some self-made, which threaten to change the face of the region, greatly exacerbate Israel’s already severe international isolation and delegitimization, and lead us to the precipice of war, possibly beyond. The fundamental pillars of Israel’s national security will be severely tried.
The right may be correct in its estimation that Israel faces a unique, one-time opportunity to unilaterally annex the West Bank, or parts thereof, and that the regional and international responses will be muted, akin to that following U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and annexation of the Golan Heights. The Arab world has never been weaker, less capable of mounting an effective response, Iran is busy with its own COVID-19, economic and leadership crises, and the international community is preoccupied by these issues, as well. Above all, annexation enjoys the approval of the Trump administration.
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There is, however, a much more plausible and severe scenario.
The Palestinians have already announced that they no longer consider themselves bound by the Oslo Accords and are ending security cooperation with Israel. Assuming that they respond to annexation, as is their wont, with a surge in violence and terrorism, the IDF will be forced to restore order and possibly even retake control of areas beyond those planned for annexation.
The resulting atmosphere of chaos and crisis may then create the historic circumstances necessary to realize the right’s true two-stage endgame: annexation of the entire West Bank, to put an end, once and for all, to Palestinian aspirations to establish a state there, and creating unrest in Jordan, whether in direct response, or due to a subsequent outflux of refugees from the West Bank, leading to the fall of the monarchy and establishment of a Palestinian state on its ruins.
An initial decision on only limited annexation may thus set in motion a course of events that rapidly deteriorate into a game changer and lead to renewed Israeli control over more than 2.5 million Palestinians. Over and above the challenges this will pose to Israel’s future character as a Jewish and democratic state, annexation will present an intolerable economic burden. The cost to Israel’s economy will be in the billions, precious resources needed desperately for unemployment, health, education, infrastructure and everything else.
Moreover, annexation will make it hard for Hamas to continue maintaining the relative calm that has prevailed of late and an escalation with Hezbollah, and even Iranian forces in Syria, is also quite possible. Just weeks from now, Israel could find itself in the midst of an unprecedented multi-front confrontation. Hezbollah, alone, has an arsenal of 130,000 rockets.
The hard-won and invaluable security ties with Jordan and Egypt will suffer, the peace treaties with both will be put to a severe test and Israel’s actions may force them, contrary to their best interests and wishes, to abrogate them. Growing cooperation with the Saudis and other Gulf states, to which Israel correctly attaches great importance, will be set back and may come to a halt, despite the common Iranian enemy. For Iran, annexation will provide an unexpected opportunity to strengthen the "axis of resistance."
Iran’s military presence in Syria continues to grow, despite Israel’s best efforts, and its cyber attacks recently crossed a dangerous new threshold. Most alarmingly, Iran has essentially lifted the restrictions it took upon itself under the 2015 nuclear deal and the U.S. and Iran appear headed on a collision course.
Both sides have already traded a series of military blows in the last year and a crisis point may be reached in October, if not before, around the recently announced U.S. intention to seek an extension of Security Council sanctions on conventional weapons sales to Iran, due to expire that time. However events play out, the ramifications for Israel will be significant.
The need for consensus may prevent the European Union from imposing comprehensive EU-wide sanctions on Israel, but this is no longer assured and, in any event, individual member states have already informed Israel of their intention to adopt unilateral punitive measures, should this prove necessary. Israel’s high-tech industry, its national growth engine, will be undercut, as will its scientific and other academic capabilities.
Sooner or later, the U.S. will elect a Democratic president, whether Joe Biden or a future successor. From personal experience, I can attest to just how tough Biden can be, even while being a true friend of Israel’s. Long term demographic trends in the U.S. favor the Democratic party, which is also home to an overwhelming majority of the American Jewish community.
During the past two years, there has been a precipitous drop in support for Israel among Democrats and three leading presidential candidates even spoke of tying U.S. military aid to Israel – the heretofore sacrosanct bedrock of the "special relationship" – to changes in its West Bank policies. All of this preceded talk of annexation, which has already caused a severe backlash, even before it's gotten underway.
One may have to be close to the currents in American public opinion to fully appreciate the pent-up fury on the Democratic side, the feeling that Israel is repaying the U.S. for decades of support in the UN Security Council and every other international forum, massive aid, a de facto security guarantee, strategic planning and coordination, and more, with a slap in the face. Israel’s dependence on the U.S. is almost complete and existential. Israel's rift with the U.S. Jewish community will be difficult to heal.
The combined effects of the above, are such that Israel is rapidly approaching a near perfect storm, and with its eyes wide open. It is possible, of course, that events will not be quite as severe as feared, but much of the above will materialize. Wise people do not play roulette with their national future.
It is up to one person, Prime Minister Netanyahu, to stop the imminent train wreck. Unfortunately, he is unlikely to do so. It is a shame. Israel was a nice country.
Chuck Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, teaches political science at Columbia and Tel Aviv universities. He is the author of "Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change" (Oxford University Press, 2018). Twitter: @FreilichChuck