Trump’s U.S. Conflagration Makes Netanyahu’s Annexation Riskier – and Shadier

Israel will be seen as exploiting not only the presidential election campaign, but America’s pain and anguish as well

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Protesters rally at the White House against the death of George Floyd, in Washington, D.C., May 31, 2020.
Protesters rally at the White House against the death of George Floyd, in Washington, D.C., May 31, 2020.Credit: JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Jewish settler leaders on Tuesday that the U.S. position on Israel’s proposed annexation of territories in the West Bank “isn’t in the same place it was five months ago,” when President Donald Trump unveiled his “Deal of the Century” at the White House. Netanyahu refused to elaborate further, the reports stated, but he didn’t really need to: Nothing is in the same place that it was five months ago.

When Trump’s dangerously dilettantish “Peace to Prosperity” plan was launched amid fanfare at the White House on January 28, the coronavirus was but a speck on America’s radar. Trump had just proclaimed, “We have it totally under control... It’s going to be just fine.” A day earlier, he had publicly thanked President Xi Jinping for “China’s effort and transparency.”

In the five months that have gone by, the United States has been ravaged by a plague that took over 100,000 American lives, many of them because of Trump’s recklessness and his administration’s incompetence. The hitherto robust U.S. economy, Trump’s pride and joy, is in a tailspin, with over 40 million unemployed.

A man reads a Bible as protesters run from tear gas in St Louis, Missouri, June 1, 2020.Credit: REUTERS/Lawrence Bryant

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And now, while the economy is tanking and the pandemic rages on, the U.S. is engulfed in the throes of a national racial conflagration following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the likes of which it hasn’t seen in over half a century. The crisis has sparked mass protests, outbursts of violence, widespread fear, a seeming breakdown of law and order – and a president who seems, to many Americans and most of the world, totally out of control.

Israeli press reports maintain that the White House, mainly in the form of son-in-law Jared Kushner, has been urging Israel to curb its enthusiasm for annexation. The president has too much on his plate now to contend with a potential Middle East flare-up, the administration has reportedly explained, probably leaving unsaid the certainty that Trump will be blamed once again for igniting the flames.

The state of emergency in the U.S. and the president’s alleged preoccupation with it have given Kushner a convincing justification to prod Netanyahu to show restraint. The president’s need to attend to his country’s urgent needs might also be more palatable for the Israeli public, especially in comparison with Kushner’s original impetus: The growing fear in Arab states – i.e. Saudi Arabia – that Netanyahu’s ambitious annexation and apartheid-like proclamations could produce an outburst of violence that would embarrass them at best, spread mayhem throughout the Middle East at worst, and generally undermine the U.S.-led anti-Iran alliance.

Nonetheless, the apparent brakes put on by the administration were enough to enrage Jewish settler leaders, who were none too happy in the first place about Trump’s overall peace plan because of its supposed endorsement of a Palestinian state. In a statement that will reverberate from Israel to Washington and from there to Trump’s evangelical base, Yesha Council of settlements chairman David Elhayani blasted Trump and Kushner in an interview with Haaretz’s Hagar Shezaf on Wednesday, going so far as to tar them with the ultimate calumny: “Not friends of Israel.” Netanyahu then condemned the statement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents a plan to annex the Jordan Valley, September 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

But whether and just how much the president shares the views being presented in his name is an open question that may not be answered until the very last minute before the July 1 deadline set by Netanyahu. If one can ignore the claim that Trump’s “Deal of the Century” is bonkers in and of itself and that his imperial willingness to allow unilateral Israeli annexation is reckless and perilous, than yes, it stands to reason that Trump would urge Israel to sit on the back burner while he deals with his inferno back home.

The problem is that such considerations sound a tad too logical and rational, especially in light of Trump’s recent careless behavior. He was dangerously irresponsible in his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and has been alarmingly inflammatory and despotic in his management of the unrest following George Floyd’s death. It’s a bit of a stretch to assume that in the Middle East, of all places, Trump would suddenly display prudence or exercise caution.

Trump, after all, is fighting for his political life, and his wars don’t abide by any known conventions. On Sunday, his minions forcefully dispersed peaceful demonstrators near the White House with tear gas and rubber bullets, just so the president could saunter over to St. John’s Church for a photo-op with the Bible. Trump deliberately enraged much of the U.S. in order to curry favor with the evangelicals, the base of his base.

He won’t hesitate to throw annexation their way and the Palestinians under the bus if it aids his election campaign. And it remains to be seen whether Elhayani’s harsh words won’t be followed by evangelical pressure on the White House to revert the administration’s yellow light on annexation to bright green.

Netanyahu, for his part, has climbed so high up the annexation tree that he could suffer a hard fall, mainly on his right flank, if it doesn’t materialize at all. But he would probably survive, and potentially thrive, even if the annexation falls well short of the 30 percent of West Bank land, including the Jordan Valley and Jewish settlements, that he has promised.

Ayelet Shaked with Yesha Council Chairman David Elhayani at the Knesset, May 26, 2020.

Netanyahu has made clear that he is maneuvering between a White House restraining order and the maximal demands of the settlers. He has pledged not to formally commit Israel to Trump’s entire peace plan. His Likud and right-wing flank could make do with a symbolic “application of Israeli law,” but some kind of annexation, to one degree or another, Netanyahu must have.

Whether a mini-annexation will also lead to mini-repercussions for Israel is also, at this point, a matter of speculation. In recent weeks, as fear of the coronavirus abated, Israeli politicians, pundits and anti-occupation activists have succeeded in raising the alarm about the potential prices that Israel might be forced to pay: the Palestinian territories could erupt in violence, Jordan could curtail the peace treaty, Arab states would be put on the spot, Europe would try to punish Israel and U.S. Democrats would be outraged by Netanyahu’s brazen attempt to extract annexation from Trump at the height of an election campaign and despite their rather explicit warnings.

It is the last threat that has now grown more acute. Five months ago, Trump was sitting pretty on a roaring economy with a better-than-even chance of being reelected. Now he’s facing the late fulfillment of his Inauguration Day “American Carnage” speech, and his prospects, at the very least, have dimmed considerably. The odds of a post-annexation Netanyahu facing an angry President Joe Biden and a vindictive Democratic Party in control of both houses of Congress have increased to a distinct possibility, if not probability.

Trump’s overall stature in the world has now gone from bad to horrible. His hitherto limited ability to rebuff attempts to punish Israel has decreased exponentially. If Trump is replaced by Biden, not only will Netanyahu have to contend with a problematic Democratic president, but he and Israel will find themselves completely alone. Western European leaders, critical of the occupation, will have more sway in a Biden White House than his and Trump’s shared buddies Putin, Bolsonaro and Orban.

Demonstrators protest near the White House in Washington on June 3, 2020. Credit: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Over the past five months, moreover, America has grown ever more divided, mistrustful and polarized, with no end in sight. Democrats and other opponents of Trump are not only fearful and distraught about the future of their Republic; they now despise their president with a vengeance. If Netanyahu advertises his close ties to Trump by securing a license to annex, despite and notwithstanding Biden’s warnings, the price tag for Netanyahu and Israel will be that much steeper come November.

But Netanyahu’s offense would be graver than cynical manipulation of American politics. Netanyahu’s insistence on going through with potentially explosive annexation at a time when the U.S. is completely and justifiably absorbed in its own inner turmoil could be portrayed by his critics as a stab in America’s back, the act of an unfriendly country. Netanyahu could be seen as exploiting America’s pain and predicament to grab Palestinian land. Even if, as many expect, Netanyahu ultimately reaches a modus vivendi with a Biden administration, Democrats in particular and a majority of Americans in general might be less amiable.

Democrats and other Trump opponents may get over annexation, especially if it does not spark the violence, bloodshed and/or the disintegration of the Palestinian Authority that many predict. But they will never forgive Netanyahu’s cynical exploitation or forget their sense of betrayal. Contrary to Netanyahu’s assurances, there could very well be hell to pay.

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