Addressing an online gathering of evangelicals on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was “confident” that U.S. President Donald Trump’s pledge to recognize Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank would be honored within “a couple of months.”
The remarks came a week after Netanyahu secured a government coalition agreement granting him the right to bring the annexation plan up for a vote in the cabinet or the Knesset as soon as July 1, subject to the “full agreement” of the U.S. administration. The power-sharing agreement signed by Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan parties stipulates that only legislation pertaining to the fight against the coronavirus can come up for a vote during the first six months of the new “emergency” government. An exception, however, was made in the case of the annexation plan.
The coalition agreement also stipulates that no legislation will be brought up for a vote in the Knesset without obtaining the consent in advance of the two main parties. Here again, an exception was made in the case of the annexation plan: Likud does not need a green light from Kahol Lavan to move ahead with it.
So, at least as far as the home front is concerned, Netanyahu has removed all obstacles in the path of annexation. The question is no longer “Can he do it?” but rather, “Will he?”
Shaqued Morag, the executive director of Peace Now, a group that has long advocated for a two-state solution, doesn’t doubt that he will.
“We are taking this very seriously because we understand that Bibi is a different person now,” she says, referring to the prime minister by his nickname.
“In the past, he might have considered annexation an irresponsible move and been more cautious – but not these days,” she adds. “Today, what motivates him is his legal and political survival.” Netanyahu is due to stand trial in Jerusalem District Court, beginning on May 24, after being indicted in three separate cases involving bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
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The fact Netanyahu insisted on inserting the annexation clause into the coalition agreement, Morag says, proves it was not just a campaign promise. “I’m convinced that if he believes there is a window of opportunity to do this now while Trump is still in power, he will go for it,” she says.
Trump’s so-called deal of the century, unveiled on January 28, would allow Israel to annex the Jordan Valley and all of the West Bank’s Jewish settlements – altogether some 30 percent of the entire territory. The Palestinians, for their part, would receive a state resembling an archipelago – a noncontiguous autonomy inside Israel, including some territory adjacent to the Gaza Strip on Israel’s southern border.
The Palestinian leadership rejected the plan even before it was published, claiming it was heavily biased in Israel’s favor. After it was officially unveiled, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas protested that “our rights are not for sale” and predicted it would end up “in the dustbin of history.”
Netanyahu wanted to push through the annexation portion of the Trump Mideast plan before the March 2 election, believing it could help secure victory for his right-wing coalition. However, Jared Kushner – Trump’s son-in-law and one of the key architects of the deal – warned against such unilateral action, and it was subsequently agreed that a joint U.S.-Israeli mapping committee would first present recommendations on where the new borders should be drawn.
Netanyahu may want to rush through a vote on the annexation plan ahead of the November U.S. presidential election. But this mapping committee could throw him off schedule, notes former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
“Leaving aside technical aspects, like whether the work can even be done right now because of the coronavirus restrictions, the mapping committee is likely to encounter a dynamic in which the leaders of the settlement communities will lobby for expanded definitions of their boundaries, and in the aggregate, that could bring the territory annexed to well above the 30 percent the Trump administration has indicated it would support,” says Shapiro, currently a distinguished visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “That could slow down the entire process.”
Shapiro points to several other factors he believes will make it more difficult for Netanyahu to move ahead quickly with the full annexation plan.
Heads of Israel’s security establishment, for example, have been known to oppose annexation. Indeed, Commanders for Israel’s Security – a group comprising some 220 former generals and high-ranking officers in the Israeli army and security services – issued a statement in early April, warning Kahol Lavan’s Gantz and his deputy, Gabi Ashkenazi, that unilateral acts of annexation could “jeopardize the peace treaty and security cooperation with Jordan, coordination with the Palestinian security forces, and the very Jewish character of the state.”
Even a small-scale annexation, they cautioned, “will likely spill over into a full-scale one,” setting in motion “a chain reaction over which Israel will have no control.” Abbas has threatened to cancel all existing agreements with Israel if it moves ahead with the annexation plan.
While Gantz and Ashkenazi (both of whom are former army chiefs of staff) will not have veto power over annexation moves undertaken by Netanyahu and Likud, Shapiro says that doesn’t mean their voices will be ignored.
“There really hasn’t been a discussion yet of the ramifications of annexation within the security establishment,” he says. “Presumably, if Gantz is defense minister, those views will at least have a chance to be voiced. I don’t think they can stop it, but I think they could impact the way the issue is considered in ways that could add time, slow it down and maybe reduce the scope.”
For example, he notes, instead of annexing the entire 30 percent of the Palestinian territory, the Kahol Lavan leaders might suggest something “more modest” and in line with the Israeli consensus – such as the big settlement blocs near the Green Line (Israel’s internationally recognized, pre-1967 borders).
While Netanyahu may believe this is the perfect time to push through an annexation plan, Shapiro says, the opposite argument could be made as well.
“It could end up alienating the Democrats as well as the next president, if Trump loses the election,” he says. “It might be wiser to wait and see the outcome of the election before doing something that could actually be reversed. If Trump recognizes the annexation but the next administration decides to reverse that, that would be very disadvantageous for Israel in terms of its regional and international stature.”
For these reasons, Shapiro says, it is too early to predict how things will play out. “When you look at the coalition agreement and listen to what the Trump administration and Netanyahu have said about it, you’d say it’s almost a done deal,” he notes. “I don’t think it’s a done deal. I think this is going to take some time to sort out.”
‘Act of madness’
David Elhayani, chairman of the Yesha Council (the umbrella body of Jewish settlements in the West Bank), is confident that Netanyahu will not allow such considerations to weaken his resolve.
“I think the chances are good – in fact, very good – that the prime minister will fulfill his commitments of the past year,” he says, referring to Netanyahu’s annexation pledges. The settler leader says he was further reassured by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said last week that annexing parts of the West Bank was “ultimately Israel’s decision to make.”
European leaders have been far less accommodating, however. “The European Union does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied West Bank,” foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said last week, warning that the EU would view any annexation as a serious violation of international law. Germany, France and the United Kingdom have issued similar warnings.
Elhayani’s response: “They’re just a bunch of anti-Semites. We don’t have to listen to the international community. We have to do only what’s good for us.”
Were Netanyahu to go ahead with annexing all of the settlements and the Jordan Valley, it would be “an act of madness,” says Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser. But Freilich is not convinced Netanyahu really wants to go that far.
“I think Netanyahu is responding more to political pressures than to what he wants to do,” he says. “There are those who speculate that this is his chance to establish his legacy. But as I see it, it really depends how far he wants to go. If he does a limited annexation of quote-unquote consensual areas like the Jordan Valley and Gush Etzion [an area of the West Bank near Jerusalem], that’s one thing – and that might be the kind of legacy he wants. But if we’re talking about the Trump plan, I have a feeling that even from his point of view, that might be too much of a good thing.”
Shaul Arieli, a leading Israeli advocate for the two-state solution, also tends to believe Netanyahu was under pressure from his right-wing allies to insert the annexation clause into the coalition agreement. Whether or not he exercises his right to implement it, in Arieli’s view, will ultimately depend on Trump.
“It all hinges on the election campaign in the United States and how Trump fares in the coronavirus crisis,” he says. “If he feels this could gain him support among evangelical voters, then he won’t have any problem with Netanyahu moving ahead before the election. But if he feels this could get him in trouble, I believe he’ll tell him to wait.”
In any event, Arieli says, annexation is not an irreversible decision. “Right now, you need a special majority of 80 Knesset members to overturn it, but you can also change the law so that all it requires is a regular majority of 61 lawmakers,” he says. “As I see it, reversing it would only be a problem if, as a result of the decisions, hundreds of thousands of Israelis start moving to the settlements – and I really don’t see that happening. In fact, there are fewer and fewer moving there each year.”