Netanyahu's Annexation Bet Drifts Further Away From Jackpot

For Netanyahu, the move mixes ideology and personal survival ■ Why is the Israeli army chief warning of 'a grave mistake' that would carry a 'heavy price'?

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Settlers demonstrate against the Trump middle east plan in Jerusalem, June 11, 2020.
Settlers demonstrate against the Trump middle east plan in Jerusalem, June 11, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Not for the first time, there’s a gap between Benjamin Netanyahu’s promises and what he’s able to do in practice. For months, the prime minister has been stoking expectations on the right that the Jordan Valley and the West Bank settlements will be annexed to Israel. But as the original target date for the start of a possible annexation – July 1 – approaches, his plan is encountering opposition.

It doesn’t even meet the expectations of the majority of the settler leaders – the constituency with which Netanyahu wanted to curry favor in the first place. The situation now is that if sovereignty is applied, it will happen at a later date and in an abridged version.

LISTEN: Annexation vexation comes between Bibi and the settlers

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Netanyahu’s gamble rests on an ostensible window of opportunity – the summer – in which he had hoped to rope in the Trump administration using the argument that annexation is the natural outcome of the Palestinians’ sweeping rejection of the U.S. president’s peace plan. The move would presumably buoy Donald Trump by firing up his evangelical voters, who admire Netanyahu, ahead of the presidential election in November.

But Trump now faces an economic and health crisis stemming from the coronavirus, and a broad national protest over police brutality against African Americans. It’s reasonable to assume that the annexation plan isn’t the main thing on his mind.

U.S. President Donald Trump walks to Marine One as he departs from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, June 11, 2020. Credit: AFP

In the meantime, Joe Biden has expressed strong objections to annexation. A similar stance is being taken by the European Union, which could impose sanctions on Israel, contrary to the fabricated palliatives emanating from the prime minister’s residence.

And then there’s Kahol Lavan. The party’s leaders, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, are in constant contact with the White House peace team. They want to stretch out the timetable for implementing annexation and reduce its scale; maybe just a symbolic step involving the settlement blocs, particularly Gush Etzion south of Jerusalem. This week it was reported in Jordan that Gantz, the so-called alternate prime minister, might visit the kingdom as part of regional calming efforts.

Netanyahu’s gambit has an ideological backdrop as well. Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is looking for something to cement his  legacy.

But like everything else Netanyahu is doing, the annexation isn’t easily disconnected from the effort at the top of his agenda: staying out of prison. “Netanyahu is already on the conveyor belt to the rest of his trial,” said a person who worked with him for many years. “Every move he makes now is influenced by that.”

In this sense, the annexation is another survival maneuver, like the host of moves that were considered by the prime minister’s aides: calling a new election by exploiting a loophole in the coalition agreement on approving the state budget, running for the presidency at the end of Reuven Rivlin’s term next year or, in an extreme scenario, supporting former Labor leader Isaac Herzog in the presidential race in the hope of striking a deal for a pardon if Netanyahu retired.

With Netanyahu’s freedom on the line, all means are kosher. Take Likud’s aggressive attack on Raviv Drucker after Channel 13's  investigative report Wednesday about news site Walla, replete with accusations against Netanyahu. Likud in turn suggested that “in a perfect world, Raviv Drucker would go to jail today for publishing criminal leaks and obstructing justice.”

The same is true of security matters, where Netanyahu has generally shown caution and responsibility ofver the years. Signs of disintegration have been seen there during Israel’s three election campaigns in 11 months.

Despite the threats by the Palestinian Authority leadership, the security coordination between Israel and the PA continues, albeit scaled down and with a low profile. Defense officials are also concerned that thousands of Tanzim militiamen might join the violence, for the first time in 15 years. The Gaza Strip, blessed with an unusually long period of quiet, is following the developments in the West Bank tensely; if violence erupts there, the Hamas regime probably won’t be able to be a bystander.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during the Palestinian leadership meeting at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 19, 2020.Credit: AFP

Two and a half weeks before the target date, Netanyahu is very sparing in sharing his thoughts on the subject with Kahol Lavan. For the past five years, Military Intelligence has clung to the assessment, which hasn’t materialized, about big problems on the Palestinian front. The Shin Bet security service warned about an escalation when Israel placed metal detectors at the Temple Mount in 2017.

Military chief Aviv Kochavi and Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman haven’t had their say yet. It’s hard to believe that this silence will continue into July if annexation efforts are launched.

It wouldn’t be the first confrontation of its kind. When the Clinton Parameters was presented at the end of 2000, the army chief at the time, Shaul Mofaz, released a document authored by Brig. Gen. Mike Herzog. The paper detailed the army's security concerns about the initiative. Ehud Barak, the prime minister and defense minister, fumed but restrained himself. Netanyahu, too, will have no choice but to listen to what the security chiefs have to say.

A lack of momentum

A few months earlier, when Barak was striving to convene a Camp David summit with Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat, he met very briefly with Mofaz at a lounge in Ben-Gurion Airport, just before one of his trips abroad. Mofaz discovered, to his astonishment, that Barak wanted to slash a billion shekels (currently $290 million) from the defense budget.

Shortly after the failure of the Camp David meeting the second intifada broke out, and Mofaz, who had aimed to push through more revolutions in the Israel Defense Forces, found himself mired with his troops in the refugee camps and inner cities of the West Bank.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, June 2020.Credit: IDF Spokjesperson's Unit

A similar fate could soon befall Mofaz’s subordinate in the Paratroopers, Kochavi. For a year and a half the current IDF chief has been devising ambitious plans to upgrade the military, only to discover that the situation on the ground is quashing any real chance of implementing anything. First came the political entanglement, with three general elections, so the government couldn’t discuss and approve Kochavi’s multiyear Momentum plan. Then the coronavirus crisis erupted and completely changed the agenda.

With a government deficit topping 80 billion shekels ($23 billion), which is only likely to grow, the prospect of persuading the politicians to mobilize for the IDF looks increasingly dim. Aiding businesses and the unemployed is now among the high priorities.

To an outside observer, the army seems immersed in an exercise of positive thinking: “Nevertheless, we shall move ahead.” The General Staff is briefing the media about structural changes and a diversion of resources to get elements of the multiyear plan moving. But the sad truth is that without a regular budget source, Kochavi doesn’t have a multiyear plan, only nonbinding planning ideas.

This week, in a speech at a military ceremony, Kochavi warned that a cut in the defense budget would be “a serious mistake for which armies and states throughout history, including Israel, have paid an extremely heavy price.” But unlike former budget battles, this time the army appears to be entering a confrontation with the Finance Ministry from an inferior position, given the state of the economy.

Gantz underwent a rough ordeal when he led the IDF; three multiyear plans he presented to the government were shelved. He’ll want to back Kochavi, but apparently only to a certain limit. He must also take the broad national interest into consideration, as well as the ministers from his party, all of whom are worried about their ministry’s budget. Compromise will be in order.

One emerging solution is to extend the arms procurement plans across nearly a decade. But other concessions will be necessary as well.

Netanyahu, surrounded by Likud ministers, speaks at the opening of his trial, May 24, 2020.Credit: AFP

Kochavi vehemently opposed a further reduction, by two months, of military service for young men to two and a half years. (His predecessor, Gadi Eisenkot, tended to agree with the idea.) Kochavi is delaying the transfer of the IDF’s intelligence bases to the Negev because of a dispute over the building of a rail line that will serve the soldiers there.

And during his tenure, the number of career army personnel has jumped to almost 42,000, up from 38,500 during Eisenkot’s term. Accordingly, the IDF’s salary outlays have swelled by nearly 250 million shekels a year. All this will be ammunition for the treasury when seeking streamlining in the military in return for budget allocations.

Friendly persuasion

Meanwhile, the Iran issue is closer to the front burner. Last week, Iran released an American whom it had held for about two years, immediately after the United States released an Iranian it had been holding.

Tehran announced that it was willing to do more prisoner swaps. Trump tweeted out an enthusiastic thanks to the Iranians and called on them: “Don’t wait until after U.S. Election to make the Big deal. I’m going to win. You’ll make a better deal now!”

The president was referring to the nuclear project. Two years ago, he abandoned the nuclear agreement with Iran, under the direct influence of his pal Netanyahu, who described it as a strategic disaster and warned about the dangers for Israel. In January, Trump – in a move that took both his generals and senior Israelis by surprise – ordered the assassination of the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani.

A Palestinian shepherd in the Jordan Valley, June 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

But along with the tough line of economic sanctions and the use of force, Trump is constantly signaling his desire to resume talks with the aim of hammering out a new nuclear agreement.

Iran isn’t making rapturous noises about this. Some Western intelligence organizations believe that Tehran prefers to wait for November in the hope that Trump will lose and Biden will be a more pliant negotiating partner. Netanyahu, at any rate, is apparently worried that Trump will be tempted into new talks in a bid to chalk up a foreign-policy achievement before the election. Netanyahu is probably investing a lot of time in trying to persuade the White House otherwise.

On Wednesday, in a meeting with visiting German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, the prime minister urged that pressure on Iran be stepped up. He noted that the International Atomic Energy Agency has found that Tehran continues to violate its commitments and is concealing sites that could help Iran make nuclear weapons.

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