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With Less Than a Month to Go, Netanayahu's Plans for Annexation Are Still a Mystery

On the way to ensuring his ‘legacy,’ the prime minister abandoned his rationale. But the settlers haven’t abandoned theirs

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Annexation.
Credit: Amos Biderman

Once upon a time, in the pre-Trump era, when the settlers would nag Benjamin Netanyahu to annex territory in the West Bank, he’d dispatch them with a dismissive wave of the hand. What’s it good for? Who needs it? – was his usual answer. It won’t make a difference, the settlements are expanding anyway, and think about the damage it will cause us around the world and in the region. Why start pointless quarrels?

Those were the days when Barack Obama was in the White House. Annexation was considered a dirty word, and an even dirtier deed. Three and a half years ago, Donald Trump moved in, and then came his “deal of the century.” The sturdy rationale that Netanyahu had used to skirt the move was tossed out the window for the sake of “fulfilling the dream of generations,” the fulfillment of Zionism and, above all, creating his “legacy.”

He needs a legacy, people close to him say. Fourteen years in total as prime minister, the most powerful to ever hold the position, and how will history remember him? As the most controversial leader? As the first sitting prime minister to stand trial?

What reality-changing move will he be remembered for? The Iranian nuclear program? It was never halted. A strong economy? It has been reasonably stable, but under his tenure the cost of living soared and the middle class was severely eroded, and that was all before the coronavirus, which is a million (like the number of unemployed) times stronger than the economy.

“Shoring up Israel’s security”? Who’s he kidding? Hamas’ unshakable rule in Gaza and 120,000 rockets aimed at us by Hezbollah in the north say otherwise. The day they’re launched, Israel’s security will need a lot more than hollow rhetoric.

In the previous decade, when Netanyahu treated the annexation option as dangerous messianic lunacy, he never imagined that when the day finally came, the main front he’d have to face would be the Yesha Council of settlements.

Or most of it at least. Rather than bow down and thank him profusely for what he obtained for them – unprecedented American consent to extend Israeli sovereignty to around 30 percent of the West Bank including the Jordan Valley – the settler leaders and their Knesset representatives are lashing out at him.

As one of them told me this week, “With all due respect to his ‘legacy,’ there’s a sacred principle that can’t be trafficked in: consent, tacit or implied, to the establishment of foreign sovereignty between the Jordan River and the sea.

“Yes, the conditions the Americans posed in the plan to the Palestinians as a prerequisite for the establishment of a state encompass pretty much everything but conversion to Judaism. And it’s true that nobody would agree to the establishment of a terrorist state. But what the hell have we been arguing about here all these years? It’s inconceivable that we’d make the unacceptable acceptable in the name of applying sovereignty.”

Outside the prime minister's residence, leaders of the Yesha Council call for a West Bank annexation and argue against a Palestinian state, February 4, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

I answered: There’s a near consensus that no Palestinian state is ever going to be established. Why not just agree to hold negotiations on the basis of the Trump outline? So they’ll talk, but nothing will come of it.

“If we go along with it,” he replied, “every future prime minister from the left, who’ll want to make it happen, will say: The right has already agreed in principle. What the price will be, the percentages, the kilometers – that’s all secondary.”

That principle has already been set down, I reminded him – at Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, when he explicitly spoke about a Palestinian state.

“Yes, but that was 11 years ago,” the settler leader said. “And he’s done everything in his power to erase that speech from the pages of history, and from his résumé.”

This man then provided a handy tip: “If a Palestinian state is set to be established nonetheless, we’ll propose that their government be based on the model of our government’s ministries. That will guarantee that the state in the making never comes into being.”

The settlers speak

With less than a month until July 1, the date set in the Likud-Kahol Lavan coalition agreement for when an annexation can get rolling, very few politicians have any idea what Netanyahu has in mind. Apply full sovereignty? Partial sovereignty? Token sovereignty? Maybe to just one of the settlement blocs?

Clearly, something has to happen. He has to come through with something to satisfy his wider base, including the more moderate right.

In the middle of the week, he called a meeting with the settlement chiefs who oppose the proposed annexation. Among them were David Elhayani, the Yesha Council chairman and head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman, and Yossi Dagan, the head of the Samaria Regional Council.

These guys are the main troublemakers; the meeting had its share of shouting. For these two, as for their predecessors, the Prime Minister’s Office is like their own private minimarket. Their birthright. There they also met with Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, Likud’s most extreme ideologue, who was Netanyahu’s sole confidant among the politicians when the U.S. administration was crafting the plan.

Levin tried to convince the two settlers to withdraw their opposition. “You think we’ve lost our minds? That we’d agree in any way to a Palestinian state?” he shouted. Elhayani, according to someone present, shouted back: “Even when you were tourism minister you didn’t give a shekel to the Jordan Valley!”

Apparently, in Elhayani’s view, Levin is a latent leftist and an enemy of the settlement enterprise. They demanded that Netanyahu call the White House and inform Trump that the plan had been rejected – not just because of the Palestinian state, but because it would create enclaves around 19 settlements that wouldn’t be included in the annexed territory. As the hours went by, their anger grew.

Levin watched them; he probably kept asking himself – Who was it that I worked so hard for? “Keep this up and there won’t be any annexation,” he scolded them.

The equation is a bit more complicated, of course. The America of June 2020, which is licking its wounds from the coronavirus crisis and the unrest after the killing of George Floyd, isn’t the America of January 2020, when the Trump plan was unveiled at the White House among evangelical Christians and kippa-wearing Jews, plus Sheldon and Miriam Adelson.

Reports from Washington indicate that a slight chill has set in. The policy makers, especially Jared Kushner and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who recently visited Israel, have heard other positions in the past month, like that of Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, the leaders of Kahol Lavan. With their party so strong in the cabinet – and as former military chiefs – their view carries weight.

Gantz and Ashkenazi are realistic people. They work with whom and what they’ve got. Right now it’s Trump and his plan. Privately, they present an alternative outline: annexation of two or three settlement blocs about which there’s a broad public consensus in Israel, but do this in a dialogue with the Jordanians and don’t annex the Jordan Valley just yet. They’d be happy to be part of this effort with King Abdullah.

Kahol Lavan's Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi in the Knesset, May 2020.Credit: Adina Wolman / Knesset

Their situation at home isn’t easy either. The members of Kahol Lavan’s left wing didn’t like Gantz’s instruction to the current military chief, Aviv Kochavi, “to accelerate the IDF’s preparations” ahead of annexation and its potential ramifications. This message made them very unhappy – as if Gantz were Netanyahu’s contractor.

The prime minister, for the sake of his “legacy” and the cheers of the deep, practically messianic right wing, is about to drag the country into a security mess whose scope and severity can’t be predicted. In the meantime, the defense minister will be charged with putting down the disturbances and clearing the rubble. The former will apply sovereignty, the latter will break bones.

Bashing Bennett

At the top of Naftali Bennett’s Twitter account it says in Hebrew “Yamina chairman and 20th defense minister of the State of Israel.” Six months at the Defense Ministry wiped out any trace of his four years as an energetic education minister and his two years as economy minister.

Bennett may see his brief tenure at the Defense Ministry as the peak of his career, but in the Knesset, which this week staffed its most prestigious subcommittee – the Subcommittee for Intelligence, Secret Services, Captives and Missing Soldiers – the legislators were less impressed. Despite the practice of many years that former defense ministers almost automatically become members of this committee, Bennett was left out.

Naftali Bennett, who had just stepped down as defense minister, at a briefing with IDF chief Aviv Kochavi and his deputy, Eyal Zamir, in Tel Aviv, May 27, 2020.Credit: Ariel Hermony / Defense Ministry

The committee has five members, the usual minimum, and will be chaired by the head of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Zvi Hauser. He’s joined by two more people from the governing coalition: Gideon Sa’ar and Avi Dichter of Likud. The opposition sent two former defense ministers: Moshe Ya’alon and Avigdor Lieberman.

What can you do – the Netanyahu era is chock full of former defense ministers, a collection of characters who reached the 14th floor of Defense Ministry headquarters only to be cast out with the stench of a political partnership with Netanyahu stinging their nostrils.

The committee oversees Israel’s spy agencies and is party to security and intelligence secrets that even most members of the security cabinet aren’t informed about (certainly in the current bloated cabinet, which outnumbers the ministers in the U.S. government). Who wouldn’t want to be part of this orgy of top secret activity?

Sometimes in the past the committee had seven members, four from the coalition and three from the opposition. It’s the prerogative of the committee chairman, and Hauser decided that there would be five. Since Bennett is a member of the smallest caucus in the opposition (the five legislators of the right-wing Yamina alliance), Ya’alon (Yesh Atid-Telem) and Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) rank higher in the food chain of former defense ministers.

If someone had really wanted it, Bennett would have joined his two colleagues from the opposition, his predecessors in the defense minister’s office, and the coalition would have sent another representative. Bennett’s people are sure this was no happenstance or innocent oversight. The presence of Ya’alon and Lieberman, believed to be the biggest detesters of Netanyahu in the Knesset, had to be swallowed. But why add Bennett and hand ammunition to someone famous for driving Netanyahu batty from the right on security issues?

Interestingly, Bennett will have his security detail lifted two months from now, just three months after leaving the ministry. This isn’t the case with Ya’alon and Lieberman, who left office four years ago and a year and a half ago, respectively. Bennett, presumably, knows just as many secrets as they do, not to mention his place of honor in Hezbollah’s target bank.

The other day, Akiva Novick reported on Channel 13 News that Bennett abruptly canceled a “reconciliation meeting” with Netanyahu that the prime minister had called. The pretext for the nixing was a press statement by Likud against Bennett and his political partner, Ayelet Shaked. Sure, the notion of “reconciliation” between the two is laughable; Netanyahu despises Bennett. He deliberately maneuvered him out of the government (Bennett, somewhat awkwardly, participated in this maneuvering). But with a possible vote on annexation looming, Netanyahu’s supreme interest is to ensure a Knesset majority.

There are 54 right-wing legislators in the coalition (including far-rightist Rafi Peretz and a defector from the center-left, Orli Levi-Abekasis). Netanyahu needs 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, but preferably a much larger majority, for symbolism’s sake. If Kahol Lavan renegades Hauser and Yoaz Hendel vote in favor of annexation, Netanyahu will still need four more.

At the moment, it appears far-rightist Bezalel Smotrich (and his National Union colleague Ofir Sofer), to judge by his recent statements at least, won’t support a version that includes any concession whatsoever to the Palestinians. Bennett and Shaked are leaning toward a yes vote but are waiting to see “maps.”

For a yes vote, Netanyahu will find himself dependent on Knesset members from Kahol Lavan’s right wing such as Orit Farkash-Hacohen and Chili Tropper, or on opposition MKs like Ya’alon or Lieberman and others from Yisrael Beiteinu.

If the annexation eggs laid by the old hen ever hatch, Lieberman better not be the one who gets to collect them. Sure, he has said countless times that he and Yisrael Beiteinu have no problem with it; they’ll be glad to give Netanyahu his annexation.

But Netanyahu would rather be coughed on by a coronavirus patient than be dependent on Lieberman’s guarantees. The meeting with Bennett was intended to secure at least two fingers voting yes – of Bennett and Shaked. As of now, the only finger Netanyahu has received is a middle finger.

Wacky races

The government has existed for around three weeks and seems to be preoccupied solely with itself. Ministries are torn apart. Parts of them are looted, like those boutiques on Fifth Avenue that got their windows shattered. Without an iota of responsibility to the country, responsibilities and jurisdictions are transferred from one place to another, merely to satisfy the ministers’ greed for jobs and prestige.

New ministers, parachuted into fictitious posts, covet an office, a budget and powers. Veteran ministers who have been compensated with crumbs are quietly cursing the man who humiliated them.

TheMarker reported this week about the difficulties in putting together some of these ministries, like the bad joke known as the Community Development Ministry, which directly translates as “the Ministry for Strengthening and Promoting Community.” TheMarker said there might be a “Ministry for Small Ministries.” John Cleese would be proud.

Benjamin Netanyahu explains why he should remain prime minister after the right wing won a majority of 'Jewish votes' in the election, Jerusalem, March 4, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

If every minister has a title, every government has a symbol. This government’s symbol is Gantz’s convoy of Audi A8s. After Likud and Kahol Lavan’s stinking maneuver known as the “alternative prime minister” and the “additional prime minister’s residence,” another status symbol has been created.

Again, Kahol Lavan people say Benny didn’t know. But these matters were signed in the coalition agreements. It appears that the accoutrements of power are causing Gantz no less damage than the mysterious hack into his phone. We know what car Gantz will ride in, but nobody knows what direction he’s going.

The hot air around these stories also helps fan the flames inside the unity government, courtesy of chronic quarrel mongers like Miri Regev, the new transportation minister. The members of our reconciliation cabinet apparently still have to look up the word “reconciliation” before revving up their swanky cars and getting to work.

And Ohana’s wacky races

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana reported to the Knesset on Wednesday to answer urgent parliamentary questions. MK Waleed Taha (Joint List) asked if Ohana’s ministry would beef up the fire department in Arab towns and villages. Ohana listed the names of communities in “the Arab sector” that had fire depots, noting that there were plans to build more.

He added boastfully: “In the last four months alone we’ve recruited 47 firefighters from the non-Jewish sector for the existing depots. This was done in a bid specifically aimed for the non-Jewish sector.”

Taha asked to pose another question. “I’d use a term other than ‘non-Jewish,’” he said. “We’re Arab citizens. You can say ‘from Arab society.’”

“I don’t see anything offensive in that term,” Ohana responded, feigning innocence. “There’s a Jewish majority,” he said, separating his hands to demonstrate what a majority is. “And there’s a minority that isn’t Jewish but has many shades.”

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana at a Knesset meeting, June 3, 2020.Credit: Adina Wallman / Spokesperson

Taha remarked, “The terms ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ in firefighting sound a bit strange to me.”

Ohana looked at him victoriously. Like his mentor Netanyahu, he would never utter the words “Arab citizens” unless it was in connection with offenses. In his dark, racist world, there’s a race that rules and another race – a “sector” as he calls it – consisting of motley tribes and congregations, characterized by not being Jewish. Nobody’s perfect.

Ohana was elected to the Knesset in 2015 as the Tel Aviv district representative for Likud. He was then chairman of the party’s “gay cell” – Ohana is gay. But he immediately ditched this role, not that he had many friends there to ditch. His debut speech was a paragon of tolerance, humanity and liberalism.

You have to wonder what his response would be if at the Knesset podium, during a debate on LGBT rights, a minister moved his hands apart and said “there’s a straight majority and there’s a non-straight minority, but it has different shades. And I don’t see anything offensive in this statement.”

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