Analysis |

On Annexation, Netanyahu and the Settlers Have Never Been on the Same Page

The prime minister, who sees sovereignty over the West Bank as a means to an end rather than a religious obligation, could use settler disagreements as a smokescreen to postpone the move

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Netanyahu with settler leaders during a visit to Alon Shvut in the West Bank, on November 19, 2019.
Netanyahu with settler leaders during a visit to Alon Shvut in the West Bank, on November 19, 2019.Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The weeks after Donald Trump’s election were a period of ecstasy in Judea and Samaria. Along the roads leading to the settlements thousands of posters were plastered with the slogan “Sovereignty Now!” Yesha Council members were spotted in the corridors of the Trump Plaza in New York and among the crowd at the inauguration in Washington. Real and imagined confidants of the new president promised them ‘just wait until our guy gets the nuclear codes.

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Everything will be different then.’ In every interview, the settler leaders demanded that Benjamin Netanyahu go ahead and annex. It was a God-given opportunity. Netanyahu heard and asked them just to wait until his first meeting with Trump.

When he finally arrived at the White House in mid-February, Trump was full of incoherent ideas about his preferred solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as “I’m looking at two-state and at one-state and I like the one that both parties like.” But he had one clear request – “I’d like to see you holding back on settlements for a little bit,” until he came up with a plan.

The settlers struggled to hide their rage. “Netanyahu tricked us,” one of the leaders fumed. But they realized that Netanyahu simply wouldn’t allow them to pursue their own independent foreign policy with the administration. After all, Netanyahu had built his entire career around the myth of being the only right-wing Israeli leader capable of standing up to and dealing with the Americans. They had no choice but to allow matters to proceed at Netanyahu and Trump’s pace.

Three and half years later, their wait is about to end. Perhaps. The moment of truth for annexation is just around the corner. Supposedly.

But Netanyahu as usual is keeping the settlers guessing. He talks of July 1 as an “unmissable” date but won’t detail how he plans to extend Israeli sovereignty. There’s no map. No draft legislation. No timetable. And meanwhile the settlers are divided among themselves between those who are anxious for Netanyahu to go along with the Trump plan, immediately, before the window of opportunity closes, and those who are concerned about the “Palestinian state” component in the Deal of the Century and the fact that under it, isolated settlements could become perpetual enclaves. Netanyahu has failed to assuage the concerns of either group as to his intentions. He probably can’t.

Settler kids behind an Israeli soldiers in the contested West Bank city of Hebron, on March 10, 2020.
Settler kids behind an Israeli soldiers in the contested West Bank city of Hebron, on March 10, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

It’s easy to forget that while Netanyahu and the settlers may be political allies, there remain considerable gaps between them. The settler ideology of returning and holding on to every corner of our holy land, fulfilling a godly commandment, usually works in tandem with Netanyahu’s belief in the renewal and reinforcement of Jewish national sovereignty in the historical homeland. But the priorities and emphases are not always the same.

The settlers see the Palestinians west of the Jordan as the main rival for the land and the central obstacle which must be overcome at all costs. For them, the rest of the world, the Arab nations and the international community are little more than a distant nuisance which can be ignored. Netanyahu refuses to regard the Palestinians as a rival nation. From his perspective, they are a tiny inconsequential part of the Arab collective. He does not see the Israel-Palestine conflict as a separate event, but just a sideshow in a much wider campaign being waged by Arab nationalism or radical Islam, against Israel, which serves as an advance outpost for the Western world.

Netanyahu is against compromises with the Palestinians because he believes it weakens Israel’s position in general. But his real fight is with the greater Arab and Muslim enemies who only use the Palestinians as an excuse against Israel.

The ideological differences also dictate social ones. The settlements were the project of religious-Zionism which somewhat inherited the historical role of the secular pioneers of socialist-Zionism. Not out of hatred, but out of admiration and a desire to continue and broaden their venture. Netanyahu does not see himself as following in anyone’s footsteps. He was brought up on hatred of the Zionist-Labor movement, and told by his father they were “Bolsheviks.”

Unlike Likud’s founder Menachem Begin who came to power in 1977 in an attempt to reconcile with the Labor establishment that had kept him and his followers out, Netanyahu (whose father despised Begin as an ideological weakling) wants to build a new nationalistic elite under his leadership. As far as he’s concerned, the settlers are suspect for their admiration and desire to be like Labor’s old pioneers. They can support him, but are not partners in leadership. The veteran and more experienced leaders of the settlers know that for Netanyahu the land of Israel is not holy, it’s a means to an end.

Ultimately, the difference between Netanyahu and the settlers’ aims are that his is a personal-political project dedicated to perpetuating his hold on power. The settler project began while Levi Eshkol, Israel’s third prime minister, was still in power, and has seen 10 prime ministers leave office. They intend to be around long after Netanyahu is gone.

The settlers have long memories and haven’t forgotten that it was Likud prime ministers, Begin and Ariel Sharon who dismantled settlements in Sinai, Gaza and northern Samaria. Neither has Netanyahu forgotten that the settlers’ representatives in the Knesset brought down two other Likud prime ministers – Yitzhak Shamir in 1992, in protest over his attending the Madrid peace conference and Netanyahu in 1999, after he had signed the Wye River agreement with Yasser Arafat, ceding 13 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian control.

For the past 11 years, since Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, they have maintained a wary alliance, despite his succumbing to pressure from Barack Obama and agreeing in 2010 to freeze settlement building. Unlike Sharon and Begin, Netanyahu they believe will never actually dismantle a settlement. But the suspicion remains.

Netanyahu will annex parts of the West Bank only if he is convinced that it furthers his longtime plan of pushing the Palestinian issue off the global agenda and achieving an unofficial normalization and an anti-Iran alliance between Israel and the main Arab powers. He is not convinced that is the case and is therefore not rushing to make annexation plans. All that he has done so far is make election promises and then promise to keep them. All his options are open.

He is keenly aware of the possible geopolitical, regional and economic implications of annexation and will only proceed if he is assured that beyond a chorus of international condemnation, there will be no actual lasting price to pay. Israel has controlled the West Bank for 53 years and no one is pressuring it to leave. He won’t sacrifice an alliance with the Saudis just so the settlers can feel that they have sovereignty.

The argument among the settlers now works well for him. He is on neither side. Unlike the hardliners, he doesn’t want to reject the Trump plan and alienate a favorable president. But unlike the other settler camp, he doesn’t want to rush ahead with annexation, either. When Trump’s presidency finally comes to an end, he intends to blame the settlers for missing the historic chance. It will be further proof that it is he, and not they, who should lead the right-wing.

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