Benjamin Netanyahu has been in office for the last 10 and a half years. For the last two and a half of them, he’s had the ultra-accommodating Donald Trump in the White House, and a largely apathetic international community. But all this time, he has done nothing to annex the West Bank.
He's not only the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, but has led Israel for a quarter of the entire period it has ruled over the West Bank — and Israel’s sovereign territory has not grown an inch.
It’s not that Netanyahu doesn’t want it to happen. The “durable peace” he promised in his book written more than two decades ago envisages Israel controlling most of the West Bank, while the Palestinians live in a series of semi-autonomous enclaves.
That’s why he’s never made any real concessions to the Palestinians, except the minimal ones he was obligated to by the Oslo Accords in his first term. But as he writes in his book, the desirable outcome will take generations to achieve, probably not in our lifetimes. Until then, the price Israel would have to pay for such a move would be too high, especially when there are much more urgent priorities, like building an international coalition against Iran.
If Netanyahu’s “special” statement on Tuesday — where he committed himself, should he win the election, “to extend, upon the formation of the next government, Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea" — proves anything, it’s his contempt for his own right-wing voters. Netanyahu asked them to believe that after all this time, during which he was satisfied with the Jordan Valley remaining under military occupation, the “historic opportunity” to annex it has suddenly opened up just a week before the most crucial election to his political survival and personal liberty.
We must remember what Netanyahu promised just five months ago, on the eve of the previous election, which he failed to win. In one interview he spoke of annexing the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim. In another, he mentioned Gush Etzion as the place where he would extend sovereignty. And now he’s promising the same for the Jordan Valley. Like a fairy, he hovers over the West Bank, choosing each time to sprinkle fake magic dust over another location. In the now-aborted coalition talks that took place after the last election, he refused to be pinned down by his right-wing partners when they tried to get him to fulfill those promises. This time is no different.
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"In recent months I have led a diplomatic effort in this direction, and the conditions for this have ripened," he said. What he really had been doing was commissioning polling of Israeli voters over whether they would be in favor of annexing the Jordan Valley, should Donald Trump support it. The only thing that is ripe is his panic.
This isn’t a “historic opportunity.” It’s a hysterical Hail Mary pass for right-wing votes. Netanyahu reads the polls we are all seeing, and many more which are commissioned for him privately. He knows that the chances of his shrinking coalition winning a majority next Tuesday are small. His best chance for survival now is a national unity government with Kahol Lavan. But Benny Gantz has repeatedly ruled out sitting in a governing coalition with a prime minister facing criminal indictments.
Netanyahu, however, believes that he can still appeal to Gantz’s sense of national responsibility, and if the deadlock between Likud and Kahol Lavan remains after the election, as it probably will, he will prevail upon Gantz to change his mind rather than plunge Israel into political chaos. Gantz’s minimal demand in such a case will be a “rotation” in the prime minister’s job, along similar lines to the Shimon Peres-Yitzhak Shamir duopoly of 1984. But who will go first?
The only way Netanyahu can seriously claim to have the right to remain in office, while Gantz makes do with the second half of the term, is if Likud is the larger party. Right now, the polls are giving Kahol Lavan a small advantage. The votes Likud needs are in the other right-wing parties and his cynical, empty promise of Jordan Valley annexation is nothing more than a barefaced play for these votes.
Netanyahu promised that if he wins, he will carry out the annexation “immediately after the election, if I receive a clear mandate to do so from you, the citizens of Israel.” If anyone in Israel still believes that immediately after the election, should Netanyahu win, he will be focused on anything but tailoring an immunity suit against prosecution, then they deserve not just one more term of Bibi but another couple of decades.