Analysis

There Was Only One 'Dramatic' Announcement for Israel Last Night – and It Wasn't Netanyahu's Empty Annexation Promise

Firing of Bolton removed last obstacle to Trump-Rohani summit

An election campaign billboard of Likud shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump reflects in a small puddle on the road, in Tel Aviv, Israel, September 8, 2019.
Oded Balilty / AP

There was just one “dramatic” announcement Tuesday evening regarding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy – and make no mistake, it was absolutely not the one that he made. The firing of U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton via Twitter, the favorite method of his employer, President Donald Trump, dealt a great blow to Netanyahu’s longtime policy regarding Iran’s nuclear program. (For the latest election polls – click here)

Bolton is considered extremely hawkish on the issue, and his dismissal clears away the final obstacle to direct talks between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rohani on a new nuclear agreement – a nightmare that Netanyahu has been fearing for weeks. In contrast, the announcement that Netanyahu trumpeted as “dramatic” for a full day, in which he promised to impose Israeli sovereignty on (annex, in other words) the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea immediately after next Tuesday’s election, in coordination with the U.S., must be understood as nothing more than one of many campaign promises.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 39Haaretz

After a long period of tension between the U.S. and Iran, led by the Americans’ system of sticks and sanctions and encouraged by Netanyahu, lately it appears that the carrot is on the way. Since France’s surprise invitation of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to the G-7 summit last month, nuclear experts have been anxiously following the reactions in the Trump administration, which seems to be warming to the idea.

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Netanyahu, for his part, once again told all the leaders outside of Washington that “this is not the time to hold talks with Iran; this is the time to increase the pressure on Iran,” but he remained in a trap regarding his friend Trump until, some days ago, he was forced to hint that at least the current occupant of the White House will bring to the talks “a tougher and more sober approach than in the past.”

On Monday relations between the two leaders, who usually appear fully coordinated on every issue, took another hit when Trump reiterated his readiness to meet with Rohani just hours after Netanyahu told the world of another alleged Iranian violation of the nuclear deal, and called on the international community to apply “pressure, pressure and more pressure” on Tehran.

To all of these insinuations as well as the unusual discord between Trump and Netanyahu, the experts had a decisive response: As long as Bolton remains in the White House, it’s a sign that no compromise with Iran is in the works – he won’t allow it. With Bolton’s dismissal, the reason for it is clear: Nuclear Deal 2.0 is on the way, at the most inopportune time and circumstances possible for Likud.

Netanyahu’s announcement about the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea also could be interpreted as signaling cracks in his love affair with Washington. First, if that was Netanyahu’s only offering to his voters, presumably he had no better gift from his American friend, in the form of the mooted defense pact or the release of Jonathan Pollard. The clock is running down.

Second, if from all the possible promises of annexation he only chose to emphasize the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea, and even that only after the election, it shows that such an annexation is presumably is part of the Trump administration’s peace plan, and U.S. officials permitted him, or at least didn’t stop him, from putting it on the table. Netanyahu would not have taken the risk otherwise.

It follows from this that annexation of the West Bank cannot be taken for granted. After all, Trump has said repeatedly that both parties will have to make concessions. On Tuesday evening the White House already made it clear that its policy has not changed and the peace plan will be released after the Israeli election. There was not even a hint of retreat on that.

Haaretz recently obtained in-depth polls conducted by a company known to be working for Likud. Respondents were asked, among other questions, for their reactions in the event Trump expressed support for various annexation models: in the West Bank, the Jordan Valley or both. Likud officials swore that it wasn’t their survey. Now it is clear that it suited the game plan perfectly.

The poll asked, for example: If the Trump administration were to announce support for Netanyahu’s declarations that Area C (territory in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria that according to the Oslo Accords was under exclusive Israeli control) should be annexed, would they support or oppose such annexation? An estimated 200,000 Palestinians are thought to live in Area C. And: If Israel does annex these areas, what in your opinion should be done about these Palestinians? And: If Israel annexes Area C, would you support or oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state in the rest of the West Bank/Judea and Samaria? And: As long as Trump remains president of the United States, how important it is for the U.S. to recognize annexation of all the existing settlements and of the Jordan Valley.

If out of all the above possibilities the Jordan Valley was chosen, that wasn’t necessarily on account of the poll results, but rather because the White House didn’t offer another option.

When it comes to annexation, for now it’s important to remember: Until now Netanyahu repeatedly thwarted every legislative initiative on the issue – including moves to annex the Jordan Valley, in part through a veto in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. He also was absent from the “sovereignty celebration” in the Likud Central Commitee.

Obviously Israel’s takeover of Area C in recent years is de facto annexation. But when major bills on the issue were proposed in Knesset, it was Netanyahu who blocked them. This doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen, but on Netanyahu’s clock, “immediately after the election” is as reliable as the time given to journalists for the announcement, which was postponed repeatedly. In the meantime, in the Iranian arena, important moves are taking place now. Not after the election.