Analysis |

When It Comes to Annexation, Netanyahu Alone Holds the Key

With Gantz serving as the latest excuse not to go through with it, will Netanyahu once again choose not to annex the West Bank?

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents annexation plans at a press conference ahead of the second round of Israel's elections, September 10, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents annexation plans at a press conference ahead of the second round of Israel's elections, September 10, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

As the election season finally drew to a close, Benny Gantz fired the opening volley this week for the campaign against annexation, after it turned out that the coalition agreement offers the government the option to introduce legislation to annex occupied territory as soon as July.

Many verbal flourishes sought to conceal the annexation clause, such as that “the prime minister and the alternate prime minister will take steps together to advance peace agreements with all our neighbors,” and that “with regard to President Trump’s declaration” there will be a joint “effort” to “preserve peace agreements and an effort to achieve future peace agreements.”

But beyond the meaningless appearance of the word peace, paragraph 29 is clear: Starting from July the prime minister may initiate debates about the “agreement achieved with the United States on the issue of applying sovereignty.” In addition, it says, Kahol Lavan is barred from delaying any committee’s handling of the proposal.

The paragraph leaves both sides much room for rejecting annexation down the line. For example, any legislation proposed on the subject has to be approved by Netanyahu; any MK can’t just initiate a proposal. When or if annexation will take place is entirely in Netanyahu’s hands. But in principle, the government has certainly not ruled out the possibility altogether.

From a diplomatic standpoint, the agreement signed between Kahol Lavan and what is left of the Labor party is even stranger. The diplomatic principles of the agreement are: 1. returning the remains of fallen soldiers and the civilians held in Gaza “as a precondition for any agreement or project concerning the Gaza Strip,” 2. Determining “a new agenda with Hamas” and restoring of “Israeli deterrence against terrorist organizations,” 3. “The parties will act together to preserve the peace treaties.”

Future cabinet minister Itzik Shmuli said that preserving these agreements will in effect prevent annexation, since any such step in the Jordan Valley will violate the treaty with Jordan. This excuse comes off as weak given the rest of the agreement, which includes details like legislation guaranteeing an official commemoration for labor Zionist pioneer Berl Katznelson – an appropriately symbolic gesture, given that Katznelson did support a “population transfers,” no different from the deportation of Palestinians.

The international community has been quietly following these processes over the past few months, ever since U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan, the so-called “deal of the century,” was unveiled. With the plan’s presentation came a fair bit of confusion. It included the option of annexing all the settlements and additional land in their environs, but the U.S. president presented this as an option that would require Israel to negotiate in parallel with the Palestinians and reserve the remaining territory for their independent state.

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law who headed the team behind the plan, poured cold water on the settlers’ enthusiasm for annexation in interviews aimed at calming the Arab world. Netanyahu was dealt a blow by the White House after rushing to boast about getting immediate approval for annexation, to which Washington put a stop. In compensation and under pressure from U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, Netanyahu got a consolation prize in the establishment of a joint Israeli-U.S. committee that would start to draw up maps for future annexation plans. The committee was established, and even met a handful of times. It’s not clear how much progress it’s made, but leaks about its work have been reported to settler-aligned media as a sign that the issue hasn’t been forgotten.

The international community’s responses have been sectioned into two parts: first an expression of support in principle to renewing the diplomatic process, and then a focused condemnation of annexation. Since then, they have largely been waiting for developments, and Gantz was the first to supply one. With the release of the coalition deal ahead of the UN’s permanent discussion of Israel and the Palestinians, a flood of strong condemnations has been published since Thursday.

Incoming European Union Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, the U.K., Germany, France, Ireland and other European nations published a clear position against unilateral annexation of the West Bank. Some of them, such as France, even hinted that if Israel were to do so, it would result in significant diplomatic consequences. “Such a step won’t pass silently,” France’s ambassador the UN said. Some countries are now consideration which steps to take if and when Israel goes through with annexation.

These condemnations, as usual, didn’t garner a lot of attention. The fact the United States is discussing annexation with Israel is the interesting news, the man who bites the dog; the position of the rest of the world is less fascinating. Perhaps because the coronavirus has dominated the conversation, perhaps because a wounded Europe that hasn’t succeeded in achieving any foreign policy consensus has become less relevant to Israelis, and perhaps because diplomatic warnings such as “we strongly condemn” have been exhausted.

On a related note, it’s important to keep in mind that the fact that the village of Khan el Ahmar hasn’t been evacuated isn’t only a matter of Netanyahu’s whims, as some on the right mistakenly believe. The village is proof that the world can definitely apply effective pressure on Israel, when it wants to.

Organizations have begun ramping up their work against annexation within Israel as well. These groups can be divided into two camps: those who believe annexation has already happened on the ground and that official legislation will only provide it with a dangerous de jure confirmation, and those who believe that annexation is a watershed event that marks the final destruction of the two state solution. Both camps are trapped. If an annexation law passes, what would the struggle be about the day after – equal rights for Palestinians living in a one-state Israel?

This past week, Gantz himself sent out messages saying that he understands that the United States will not allow annexation to happen. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added his own comments to the mix, saying that annexation would be “Israel’s decision.” It’s clear to all that the United States won’t force annexation, and anyone who saw Trump recommending injecting disinfectants as a treatment for the coronavirus this week has to be skeptical about whether he has any consistent position on any issue. The key to annexation was and remains in Netanyahu’s hands. It remains to figure out whether he will let it slip by as he has done for years, now that Gantz is serving as the excuse, or if this time, it’s not a drill.

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