After 16 months of incessant election campaigns and fruitless coalition horse-trading, Benjamin Netanyahu is finally about to swear in his fifth government.
At the same time, Israel seems to have gotten past the first major wave of coronavirus infections and sickness, and is now emerging from the shutdown of nearly two months. So now that politics and public health are no longer top of the agenda, we can finally get back to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Not that anything new has been happening in the conflict for a while now. No new diplomacy, no major violence; just the ongoing stagnation of military occupation, which in a month will be marking its 53rd anniversary. But there may be an exciting new development in store.
The coalition agreement signed between Netanyahu and Benny Gantz allows the prime minister to bring “the agreement which will be achieved with the United States on the imposition of sovereignty” for approval to the cabinet and Knesset from the beginning of July. In the pro-Netanyahu, free newspaper Israel Hayom, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman is quoted as saying that the Trump administration is prepared to recognize Israel’s sovereignty “within weeks.”
So it’s finally happening. Israel is going to annex major parts of the West Bank. European foreign ministers and the Arab League have already issued the standard denunciations, and foreign policy think tanks are publishing reports on the devastating implications.
Only it’s not going to happen. And not because of them. It’s not going to happen because Netanyahu doesn’t really want annexation. At least not now.
Netanyahu has now served as prime minister for a combined total of 14 years, and has done nothing on the ground to prepare the way for annexation. While most of his time in office has come during the terms of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who were hardly friendly towards him, he has also had the entire term of Donald Trump at his disposal.
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“Bibi could have pushed for annexation from the moment Trump was inaugurated,” says one of his ministers. “He didn’t because he doesn’t really want to. He remembered annexation only when the elections came.”
The settlers’ lobby has been demanding annexation literally from the morning of November 9, 2016, when it transpired that Trump had won the U.S. election. They even sent representatives to Trump Tower, but “Netanyahu got there before us,” said one of them. “He made sure that the administration put out a statement not to go ahead with major settlement building or annexation.”
Annexation was put on hold for over two years, until it suddenly made an appearance in an interview in April 2019, days before the first of three elections in the space of a year. It was no coincidence. Netanyahu had focused on the promise of annexation as a lever to bring out the right-wing base to the ballot box. And he ramped up the promises in each election: From a few settlements in the April election, to the entire Jordan Valley on the eve of the September election, and then the Jordan Valley and all the settlements in the Trump plan, just four weeks before the third election.
But Netanyahu doesn’t need it to win an election anymore. He has a deal with Benny Gantz that ensures he remains in power for at least three more years. There’s no need to rally the base now. Neither will annexation help Netanyahu fulfill his second goal, after reelection – preventing the anti-corruption case against him going ahead. Annexation is a complex operation and Netanyahu simply won’t have the time to focus on it in the coming months, as he prepares to face the judges in Jerusalem District Court.
The settlers and the ideological hard-core on the right still hope Netanyahu seeks a career-defining “legacy” in the form of annexation. But they don’t realize that Netanyahu doesn’t believe his career is anywhere near over. So what’s the rush? They hope Netanyahu won’t allow the “historic opportunity” of the Trump presidency to pass without annexation, but Netanyahu’s perspective is a long-term one.
He has already realized that the prospect of Trump being reelected is vanishingly small and that he will soon have to deal with President Joe Biden. Netanyahu and Biden had a relatively decent relationship during the Obama administration, and Biden has already made it clear he will strenuously oppose annexation. But on the other hand, he won’t reverse Trump’s decision and move the U.S. Embassy back from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. So Netanyahu will still have a legacy from the Trump era.
Netanyahu has probably got all he could have hoped for from Trump – the embassy in Jerusalem; U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal; recognizition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The annexation contained in Trump’s “deal of the century” won’t be realized. The last months of Trump’s presidency will consumed by the pandemic and a flailing reelection campaign.
Netanyahu understands this. As it is, he never expected to reach the state where the world acquiesced to Israel’s annexing of the West Bank in his lifetime. Netanyahu has worked for decades to achieve the current status quo whereby the Palestinian issue has all but disappeared from the global agenda; it serves him well. Why jeopardize it? The last thing Netanyahu wants is to make the Palestinians relevant and newsworthy again by rushing to annex.
Annexing the Jordan Valley and the settlements will fulfill the ideological right’s dearest dream, but it will also mean that Netanyahu has ended his historic role as far as they’re concerned. They won’t agree to the second stage of the Trump deal – founding a Palestinian state on the remaining two-thirds of the West Bank. Netanyahu knows it makes much more political sense for him to keep the annexation as an unfulfilled promise for his base and blame “the left” for “wasting the historic opportunity,” which will be Gantz’s role in the new government: to take the blame.
There will be a lot of talk about annexation over the next few months, once the new government is sworn in – but talk is all there will be.