Clause number 8 in the marginal and smallest coalition agreement signed between Likud and Gesher – headed by Orli Levi-Abekasis, who ran with a left-wing alliance in Israel’s general election on March 2 – exposes everything about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s real annexation strategy.
“Gesher pledges to support all the stances expressed by the prime minister that are coordinated with the United States and directly or indirectly linked to the issue of applying sovereignty [to the West Bank],” the clause says, adding that Gesher is obligated to support Netanyahu in Knesset and or government votes, as well as on Knesset committees.
Community development minister is the ludicrous name tailored for Levi-Abekasis’ new job in the government. The choice of words in Clause 8, however, which is far more important to Netanyahu, is everything but random. Every letter there was chosen by the best political wizards, with the goal being achieving maximum ambiguity about Netanyahu’s intentions regarding West Bank annexation. It’s definitely not a coincidence that the clause doesn’t simply say that Gesher, a party comprised solely of Levi-Abekasis, commits to support Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan to annex the territories, or “to apply sovereignty,” as the clause states.
Those phrasing the clause intentionally chose to stress that Gesher is committed to support every stance presented by Netanyahu and coordinated with Trump and his envoys on the matter of annexation. Even if Netanyahu decides to call off, delay or limit the annexation, Gesher is obligated to support him. All options are open. Levi-Abekasis just needs to comply with Netanyahu’s orders, no matter what they are.
This approach perfectly reflects Netanyahu’s ongoing policy of pulling political stunts, and not only on the matter of West Bank annexation.
Having the cake and eating it too is not an expression for Netanyahu, but a way of life. To annex and not to annex at the same time is Netanyahu’s specialty for over a decade.
During most of his years in politics, Netanyahu supported the model of limited Palestinian autonomy, or a “state-minus,” as Netanyahu cynically dubbed the option of establishing a disarmed Palestinian entity alongside Israel. But in recent years, as the competition on the right intensified, so did the theoretical support Netanyahu expressed for the annexing settlements.
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In practice, the prime minister so far actively foiled every attempt to initiate legislation on the matter. Among others, he thwarted bill proposals to annex the Jordan Valley, the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim and other Jewish settlements near East Jerusalem. Netanyahu always explained that he supports the principle of annexation, but the right time hasn’t come yet. He was also absent from Likud’s “sovereignty celebration.”
And while Netanyahu delays and stalls the de jure annexation, de facto annexation has already happened on the ground. Israel effectively operates in the settlements and in Area C – which is under full Israeli civil and security control – as if they were an inseparable part of Israel for a long time. So why not just continue to de facto annex while avoiding international drama that would be created by an official annexation? That way Netanyahu can have the cake and eat it too, exactly how he likes it.
In recent weeks, the Americans have also adopted this ambiguous style. Senior officials in the Trump administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman are constantly reiterating one clear message: “Annexation is an Israeli decision.” They stress that the United States is prepared for such a move, but that its role is to recognize Israeli decisions, and initiate them.
Several sources familiar with the matter are convinced that the United States is trying to encourage Israel to make up its mind already, and other sources, who are no less knowledgeable, are convinced that this is the Trump administration’s way to shed responsibility and curb the initial annexation enthusiasm. The remarks delivered by Pompeo during his lighting visit to Israel on Wednesday showed a certain cooling down by the Trump administration on the matter.
For instance, Pompeo noted the need to coordinate annexation moves with all relevant regional factors and that the new Israeli government first needs to decide on its stance before moving forward.
Although the sources tell conflicting stories, one thing is clear: The ball is in Netanyahu’s court, whether he wants it or not, and the Americans are blurring their real intentions.
This too is not a coincidence, and press briefings are contradicting for a reason. As in the Syrian arena, here too everyone wants to preserve “an ambiguity space” ahead of the twists and turns the formation of the new government will cause, and the mounting international pressure.
Clause 8 enables us to make sense out of all this disinformation. All those involved are looking for the golden path that would allow Trump and Netanyahu to annex and not to annex at the same time, to declare something symbolic that won’t change anything anyway. This will also prevent Israel from swallowing the bitter pill of Trump’s peace plan: Negotiations with the Palestinians and freezing construction in the settlements. Avoiding these things will please the settlers and their evangelical partners, but won’t spark a serious international uproar that would lead to the world to penalize Israel, nor would it destabilize regional security.
In such a situation, expressing support for “any stance” presented by Netanyahu in coordination with Trump, is the key to obtain the flexibility required to carry out the annexation maybe even
without officially announcing it.