The Palestinians will erupt, Jordan retaliate, Arab states protest, Europe punish and U.S. Democrats go into a blind rage: These are just some of the apocalyptic warnings Israelis are hearing in advance of the decision expected to be made by Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to annex Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley. Been there, done that and it never happens, most Israelis will respond. So what else is new?
It’s hard to scare public opinion about the potentially destructive ramifications of an Israeli annexation, when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in Jerusalem, pleading the Fifth about annexation, “as if he was from the UN”, as a popular Israeli idiom would describe it. Pompeo told Israel’s Kan Television that it’s up to Israelis to decide if, when and how much, as if annexation was some irksome local issue and not a potentially ticking regional time bomb.
Some analysts tried to interpret Pompeo’s formulation as a warning, in the sense of “Do what you want, but you’re on your own.” If that was Pompeo’s intention, it missed its mark. Even if one assumes that Pompeo wasn’t actually pushing Netanyahu to annex – that could come later, if Donald Trump gets desperate for election-eve evangelical fervor – the Secretary of State certainly wasn’t giving the Israeli public any reason to suspect the White House is standing in the way. Compared to how all of his predecessors in the pre-Trump era would have reacted, Pompeo’s laissez-faire approach was widely interpreted as a virtual green light.
As far as most Israelis are concerned, that’s the only thing that matters. If Trump signs off on annexation, Netanyahu and his newfound ally Benny Gantz, who are to be sworn in on Thursday, will have lost any reasonable excuse for revoking or simply postponing the annexation decision.
There was a time when Netanyahu would have tread more cautiously. In September 1996, a few months after assuming office as prime minister for the first time, a cocky Netanyahu ignored the warnings of his own security services and sanctioned the opening of the Western Wall tunnels. 25 Israeli soldiers were killed in the ensuing riots, along with over a hundred Palestinians. For the first time, the Israeli army clashed with the official security forces of the newly constituted Palestinian Authority, a development that Netanyahu, in retrospect, may not regret.
After the violence subsided, Netanyahu became more cautious, careful and, critics would say, cunning as well. But like most everything else about Benjamin Netanyahu, his attitude began to change midway into his second stint at the top, during the two tenures of the Barack Obama presidency. Aided and abetted by an increasingly venomous Republican right, Netanyahu discovered that one could openly clash with the U.S. President on the Palestinian issue and even brazenly challenge him in the U.S. Congress on Iran and still emerge more or less unscathed.
Obama’s bark, at least as it was distorted, inflated and manipulated by the Israeli and American right, turned out to be far worse than his bite. Cowed by fear he would be branded an anti-Semite, Obama waited until his presidency was over before voting to condemn settlements in the Security Council. What was almost a routine U.S. vote in the days of Ronald Reagan became presidential perfidy of monstrous proportions in the mouths of Obama’s vociferous opponents.
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Thus, Ehud Barak’s 2011 warning of an imminent “diplomatic tsunami” because of Netanyahu’s hard right policies never materialized. Instead, it became a running joke. The refugee crisis erupted, sending Europe into a tailspin, Iran scared Arab states into aligning with Israel and Trump was elected U.S. President: Instead of a vindictive Hillary Clinton, Israel got the gift that keeps on giving.
Gone are the days that a U.S. President could impose military sanctions on Israel for bombing the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, as Reagan did. Never again would a U.S. leader withhold loan guarantees in order to extort a settlement freeze, as George Bush Sr. did. Even an offhand remark once made by his son, George Jr., that “settlements must go” sounds today like an ancient relic of dark times long gone.
Israelis remember the warnings that Palestinians would react with outbursts of violence after the U.S. moved its embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, but the Palestinians were otherwise engaged. Jordan will undoubtedly be incensed but relations are bad anyway, so how much worse can they get, and our new pals, the Saudis, will help calm Amman down.
And yes, Western European countries will be up in arms, but their hands are mostly tied by European Union’s collective decision-making process, which includes unabashedly pro-Israel countries such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. In any case, with coronavirus crisis and the ongoing refugee challenge, Europe still has much bigger fish to fry.
Then there is the case that is made that annexation will harm the pursuit of peace and scuttle chances for a two-state solution, which most Israelis view as naive pie-in-the-sky leftist fantasies anyway. Annexation will create a bi-national state based on apartheid, Israelis are told, as if that wasn’t the case anyway, in everything but name. Annexation will ultimately undermine Israeli democracy and rule of law, Israelis are warned, and as they watch Netanyahu and his colleagues pursue the same objective, in a quicker and more efficient way.
Annexation could turn out to be the disaster many experts are predicting, but you’ll have a hard time persuading Israelis to that effect or galvanizing them to do anything about it. Predictions of impending catastrophe, as far as Israelis are concerned, are like the boy who cried wolf in Aesop’s famous fable. Everything was going smoothly until the day the wolf actually arrived on the scene, ate the sheep, devoured the boy and left the townspeople wondering why no one had bothered to warn them.