Netanyahu Aides Fear U.S. May Drop Annexation if PM Can't Reach Deal With Gantz

U.S. opposition is not just coming from the 'usual suspects' – the Democratic party's left – but also from firm supporters of Israel, moderate senators and House members considered close to AIPAC

Amos Harel
Amir Tibon
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Palestinian encampments in the Jordan Valley, June 13, 2020.
Palestinian encampments in the Jordan Valley, June 13, 2020.Credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/ REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amir Tibon

In the most recent Likud-Kahol Lavan discussions about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation plan, wide gaps have emerged between the sides. At the beginning of the week, Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Knesset Speaker Yarin Levin met with U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. The primary dispute, over the size of the territory to be annexed and the timeline for doing so, also touched on the order in which steps will be taken.

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

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Netanyahu sought at the meetings to start dealing with the map that will detail the territories to be annexed. Gantz, on the other hand, who said recently that he hadn’t examined the annexation map, stressed the need to come to understandings with Arab countries that have ties with Israel, especially Egypt and Jordan. The prime minister’s associates fear missing an opportunity; if the two parties don’t succeed in reaching an agreement soon, the U.S. administration will lose interest, and the annexation issue will drop off the agenda. Sources involved in the contacts told Haaretz that the gaps between Likud and Kahol Lavan are large and at this point it will be difficult to bridge them.

Moreover, in Israel there is a growing feeling that the annexation process will accentuate the disputes over Israeli policy between the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States. The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has publicly expressed opposition to annexation. If the Democrats win the November presidential election, annexation will put the Netanyahu government on a collision course with the new Biden administration.

In the more left-wing branch of the Democratic party, whose most prominent representative is Sen. Bernie Sanders, there is even support for punishing Israel for such a move. It’s possible that party members will seek to discuss American recognition of a Palestinian state, or even make changes to the defense aid agreement with Israel, though Biden and his men have rejected the latter.

The Democratic party is united in its opposition to annexing the settlements. More than 60 percent of Democratic senators have either issued statements to this effect, or sent letters objecting to annexation to Netanyahu and Gantz, and the number is expected to grow. The opposition is not just coming from the “usual suspects” – Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and members of the party’s left – but also from firm supporters of Israel, senators and House members from the moderate wing of the party considered close to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying organization.

The campaign in the House of Representatives against annexation is led by Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida, who is Jewish and has been a consistent supporter of Israel. He voted against the Iranian nuclear agreement and was even critical of former President Barack Obama for his position on the settlements. Messages from the Democrats have also been passed privately to Netanyahu, Gantz, Ashkenazi, and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer.

On the Republican side there is a lot of confusion with regard to annexation. Most legislators are not commenting on the issue because they are waiting to understand what the White House’s position exactly is. Senator Ted Cruz is the legislator most vocally encouraging Israel to pursue annexation. But as long as it isn’t clear who really speaks for U.S. President Donald Trump – his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, or Ambassador Friedman, the Republicans will tend to remain mum.

Billboards shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and U.S President Donald Trump in Jerusalem, placed by Yesha, June 10, 2020.
Billboards shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and U.S President Donald Trump in Jerusalem, placed by Yesha, June 10, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/Oded Balilty

Army in the dark

In the Israeli security establishment there is still a lack of clarity regarding the annexation plan and the timeline for implementing it. Security sources say that aside from Gantz himself, the agencies subordinate to him are not familiar with the plans. During internal discussions the assessment was made that the Palestinian response would heavily depend on the size of the territory annexed. A symbolic annexation in the Jordan Valley would generate less opposition than the annexation of lands in the central West Bank along Route 60.

The IDF is continuing its operational preparations for a possible flare-up in the territories in response to an annexation announcement by Israel. The scenarios range from demonstrations that will require a limited bolstering of military units, through shooting attacks on the roads, to attempts at bomb attacks in the West Bank and within the Green Line, which would require a harsh Israeli response. Those units included in the Central Command’s operational plan have been through exercises and even snap deployments in accordance with the escalation scenarios.

One of the main issues occupying the defense establishment is the possible involvement of the Tanzim forces, the field units of the Fatah movement. The assessment is that they have thousands of weapons at their disposal and that in extreme situations they could use them to attack Israeli soldiers or civilians.

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