What Exactly Does Netanyahu Mean by ‘Annexation’? Israel's Defense Establishment Has No Idea

What will the prime minister do in the West Bank a month from now? He himself probably doesn’t know. The army and intelligence services have sketched out scenarios but questions remain, including how Saudi Arabia and Jordan might react

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Netanyahu promising at a press conference to annex the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea area, Oct. 9, 2019
Netanyahu promising at a press conference to annex the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea area, Oct. 9, 2019Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Three people could stop Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from annexing all or part of the West Bank a month from now. And the three do not include Defense Minister Benny Gantz or Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, the leaders of the Kahol Lavan party, who so far have evinced near-total submission to Netanyahu’s dictates. The three are Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor; and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen.

Bin Salman could convince Kushner that annexation right now would provoke anger throughout the Arab world and bolster Iran, Saudi Arabia’s detested enemy. Kushner has said before that he opposes a unilateral move by Israel and that annexation of parts of the West Bank must be done within the framework of Trump’s “deal of the century.” If he makes it clear to Trump that annexation should not proceed at this time, Netanyahu is quite likely to renege on his pledge.

That scenario is unlikely, however. Bin Salman is preoccupied with more pressing problems like plummeting oil prices and plunging Saudi revenues. The monarchy in Riyadh, like the leadership in most Arab countries, is weary of dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all the more so since Saudi Arabia has developed very close ties with Israel in recent years, based on one key interest: hostility toward and fear of Iran. This is why, as previously reported, all the Mossad chiefs of the past few decades have (secretly) met with their Saudi counterparts. Presumably, Yossi Cohen has also done so and will continue to do so in the coming month.

Cohen reportedly also met with the head of Egyptian intelligence, General Kamal Abbas, in Cairo several days ago. Such meetings have become practically routine and usually focus on intelligence and security coordination and cooperation. It was previously reported, for example, that the Israeli army’s elite intelligence Unit 8200, the Shin Bet security forces and the Israel Air Force are aiding the Egyptian army and security forces in their efforts to combat Salafi terrorism in Sinai, which has been intensifying in recent weeks.

The purpose of these meetings is to keep Gaza quiet as well as to advance a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas, though the prospects for that appear to be fading. The diminishing anxiety about the coronavirus, combined with the annexation issue, could lead Hamas, and certainly Islamic Jihad and other defiant groups, to resume launching incendiary balloons, the friction and the protests along the border fence between Israel and Gaza, and perhaps to also resume firing rockets.

Cohen will probably also meet with officials from the “Sunni axis” – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and Morocco – to assess the tenor of their opposition to annexation. Top defense officials expect that their opposition will be conditional. If the masses don’t take to the streets, the leaders’ reactions will be confined to lip service. They’ll condemn Israel and express support for the Palestinians, but won’t take things further. However, if the popular anger grows and the fire starts to lap at the hems of their robes, the response will be very forceful. Jordan and Egypt could lower their level of diplomatic ties with Israel; and the other countries will cut their trade ties with it.

Cohen knows all this, but like Netanyahu, he believes in Israel’s right to annex territory. So we shouldn’t expect the man who, out of all the security chiefs, is closest to the prime minister, to try to dissuade him.

Credit: Moti Milrod

That makes the position of all the others – IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, military intelligence chief Tamir Heyman and Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman – all the more important. They are the ones who will have to directly contend with the consequences of a decision to proceed with annexation, and they are the ones who will have to prepare those under their command for every possible scenario. Kochavi, Heyman and Argaman have already held several discussions about the implications of annexation and made plans for various scenarios should the decision be made to go ahead. These include beefing up forces as needed (additional IDF battalions to police the West Bank, more police officers in East Jerusalem, and stepping up intelligence-gathering) and to amplify efforts to gauge how the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Jordan intend to react.

In private conversations, most past and present security officials indicate that they oppose annexation generally, and particularly as a unilateral move. They say there is nothing to be gained by anchoring in law a situation that essentially already exists on the ground in any case. To the best of their ability, they candidly assess the likely impact of any annexation move but, cognizant that this is also a political hot potato, they don’t wish to touch it. Given the reduction in status of the top security officials as seen by the ministers, and especially Netanyahu, over the last few years, Kochavi and Argaman are not that likely to pound on the table and express vehement opposition, as assertive Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs and IDF chiefs of staff have done in the past.

Jordanian sandwich

When Netanyahu talks about “annexation,” what actually does he mean? The security chiefs still have no idea. Netanyahu hasn’t told them, perhaps because he himself still isn’t quite sure what he plans to do. Annex the Jordan Valley? Annex the large settlement blocs? Area C? The entire West Bank?

Whatever they do will have significance and repercussions in the field. If an area is annexed, will the Palestinians living within it receive Israeli citizenship? How will the borders be marked? Many months of preparatory work by the IDF Planning Directorate and civilian experts would be required, and to date no such teams have been assembled. In the West Bank, even moving a single rock from one side of the road to the other has security implications.

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, April 11, 2017Credit: HANDOUT/REUTERS

“We’re just a month before the decision and the IDF still has no idea which scenario to prepare for,” a former senior officer told me. The only thing clear right now is that, in terms of the PA’s rhetoric, there is no difference between a sweeping annexation and a very small one. As soon as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) heard that the word “annexation” appeared in the coalition agreement, he announced that he was halting security and civilian coordination with Israel.

“Communication still exists, but at a very low level,” says Eric “Harris” Barbing, the former head of the Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria District in the Shin Bet. Coordination regarding the transfer of Palestinian forces from one city to another has ceased, and that IDF brigade commanders and Shin Bet officials have had to stop joint patrols. As a result, the IDF is limiting its activity to the most vital operations so as to minimize friction and dampen the volatility of the situation.

“The big story is the civilian coordination,” says Colonel (res.) Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, and the former head of the Palestinian department in military intelligence and advisor to the Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories. It’s “sexier” to talk about the security coordination but that only applies to 95,000 police and security forces while the civilian coordination affects three million people, Milshtein explains. “Every day, 130,000 [Palestinian] laborers work in Israel and the settlements. What happens when their work permits expire? What about the special permits held by 5,000 merchants? And the 200 doctors who are training in Israel? What happens to the priests? What will become of the banking ties between the two sides? The list goes on and on. And all this is happening in the shadow of a severe economic crisis because of the coronavirus, with an additional 300,000 people unemployed.”

So, nobody in the security establishment or the IDF has the slightest idea what the prime minister is planning, because he hasn’t troubled to discuss the potential impact with them. All they can do is guess.

There is a consensus in the security establishment that if annexation occurs, the Palestinian reaction will be furious but won’t necessarily manifest right away as terror attacks. It could take the form of mass protests from Samaria down to the Jordan Valley. Barbing stresses, though, that even if Abu Mazen and his top officials continue to endorse their anti-terror policy, Tanzim, which makes up the backbone of the Fatah leadership and consists of members from the middle and younger generations, may not heed their orders. “Tanzim operates mainly in the refugee camps and has a lot of weaponry at its disposal,” he says. “Ultimately, annexation means we’ll have to brace ourselves for some form of terror attacks in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and less so within the rest of Israel. It could initially take the form of a return to the ‘lone wolf intifada,’ where the attackers are not guided by the Palestinian Authority but are driven by incitement fanned on social media, and by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and it could escalate from there. However, the Shin Bet and IDF know how to deal with terrorism even in the absence of full coordination with the PA,” Barbing adds.

The response of Hamas in Gaza may be less of a concern to Israel’s leaders right now, but Jordan’s response will be critical. King Abdullah, like his father Hussein before him, has depended for years on close intelligence cooperation with Israel and benefited from strategic cooperation in thwarting terror attacks and subversion against his regime. He is conscious of Jordan’s delicate position as a country “sandwiched” between Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Israel. At the same time, Israel also depends on Jordan and views it as a buffer state, almost as a security zone, and it has a supreme interest in ensuring that Jordan remains stable.

From left: U.S. President Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the King David hotel in Jerusalem. Monday, May 22, 2017Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

The situation in Jordan is very complicated. Half the population is Palestinian, the Muslim Brotherhood is active there, and there is much hostility toward Israel in the parliament and the professional guilds. Abdullah personally cannot stand Netanyahu and considers him a manipulative liar. The two have no relationship and Israel’s covert ties with Jordan are maintained mostly through the Mossad. The king already tied his own hands somewhat when he declared that he would have no choice but to respond forcefully to any annexation, especially if it involves the Jordan Valley. At a minimum, he will have to lower the level of diplomatic representation, but the expectation is that he will not completely cut off official ties, and certainly not the covert ties.

The best default option for Netanyahu in this thorny situation would be to announce his intention to pursue annexation and then form a working group to discuss the details in order to gain time. The Netanyahu of five years ago might have taken this tack, cautioning against hasty moves, bearing in mind the crises that erupted following his order to open the Western Wall tunnels in 1996 and the botched assassination attempt on Hamas leader Khaled Meshal the next year. Netanyahu also remembers how Yitzhak Shamir’s government fell in wake of the first intifada. But today’s Netanyahu is different: more messianic, more anxious, more sure of himself, more eager to go down in history as the one who established “Greater Israel.” If this is really his position, he will also ignore the fact that Israel is in the grips of a major economic crisis and that annexation would mean realizing Yasser Arafat’s dream of one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

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