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Annexation Could Be Netanyahu’s Prelude to Dismantling Israeli Democracy

The proposed West Bank land grab is so patently unhinged it sparks suspicions of more ambitious and sinister designs

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a government meeting in Jerusalem, June 14, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a government meeting in Jerusalem, June 14, 2020. Credit: Mark Israel Salem
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Benjamin Netanyahu’s rush to annex parts of the West Bank on July 1 is, by any rational standard, completely unhinged. For a brief moment of nationalistic hubris that changes nothing on the ground, Israel is risking violence, bloodshed, condemnation, isolation, sanctions, regional ties, a rupture with Jordan and the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. And that’s just for starters.

Netanyahu and no more than a smattering of devout right-wingers in Israel and the U.S. maintain that the remaining months of the Donald Trump administration create a unique and historic window of opportunity that must be exploited before it potentially closes. In the eyes of everyone else, Netanyahu – and Israel by extension – is on the verge of seizing disputed territories like thieves in the night, protected by a lawless U.S. president who is universally reviled. There will be hell to pay, they warn.

LISTEN: How Netanyahu could fudge annexation, hoodwink Gantz and cling on to power

Annexation is a godsend for anyone who wishes Israel harm. It forces the international community to refocus on the ongoing occupation of the Palestinians, which it had largely forgotten. It corroborates longstanding allegations that Israel has no interest in achieving peace. And given Netanyahu’s assertion that Palestinians in annexed territories won’t be granted citizenship, annexation will actually prove what Israel has long described as the “blood libel” of apartheid.

This image shows the Jordan Valley, parts of which Israel plans to annex, May 24, 2020Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Annexation deprives Israel of whatever moral high ground it has so far managed to maintain. After annexation, Israel’s defenders – including U.S. Jews – will be hard pressed to claim that justice is on its side or to pin the blame for continued hostilities on Palestinian intransigence. Annexation will legitimize the kind of Palestinian violence that Israel has successfully undermined.

And the craziest part is that the momentous move, which could have a dramatic impact on Israel’s security, foreign relations and internal cohesion, is basically a one-man show from start to finish. Netanyahu pushed Trump to formulate and publish his so-called “Deal of the Century” and was instrumental in drawing up the absurd map that accompanies it. Now, he is trying to maneuver the administration into endorsing annexation and sidelining the other provisions, pathetic as they may be, of Trump’s pathetic “peace plan.”

The prime minister is keeping his cards so close to his chest that no one really knows whether he intends to follow through with annexation. He is keeping everyone guessing, pushing Israel to make a pivotal decision without revealing any of its details while waging an all-out PR campaign to minimize its potential fallout. “Talking harms annexation,” Netanyahu said on Sunday, expecting Israelis, with what he took to be good reason, to follow blindly in his footsteps.

Netanyahu is taking on the world in order to shape his legacy as the prime minister who laid claim to biblical Jewish homelands in Judea and Samaria, some believe. Actually, others assert, he will back down at the last minute, pin the blame for the failure of annexation on his political rivals, whip up a public frenzy and call for new elections, which – like everything else Netanyahu has tried over the past two years – might provide him with a way out of his legal woes.

Perhaps it’s hubris. Over the past few years, Netanyahu has bolstered his reputation as a master of diplomacy and grand wizard of politics. He survived repeated elections that he was projected to lose. He not only refuted warnings of a steep price to pay for his hostile confrontation with Barack Obama, he was rewarded with the bonanza of Donald Trump and a presidential carte blanche to pursue Israel’s nationalistic right-wing agenda as he sees fit. Now he’s got the whole world in his hands, awaiting his every word.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu’s relentless stampede to annex is an aberration for him. He may have gone off the deep end in domestic politics, matching and sometimes outperforming Trump himself in sprouting cockamamie conspiracy theories, sabotaging the rule of law and waging a dangerous war on the media, but he has mostly stuck to careful rejectionism and restraint in the handling of Israel’s security and foreign affairs. Annexation marks the expansion of Netanyahu’s domestic dementia into his handling of Israel’s state affairs as well – and it’s probably no coincidence.

Annexation, in fact, may be the instrument that Netanyahu wields in order to smite Israeli democracy and save himself. If the bark of the international reaction to annexation will turn out to be far worse than its projected bite, as it has been in the past, Netanyahu will emerge victorious. He will be crowned a hero and probably garner enough public support to achieve the absolute Knesset majority he has sought but so far failed to secure. Democracy and the rule of law would be his for the taking.

Palestinians burn pictures of U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest against annexation in the West Bank city of Nablus, May 30, 2020.Credit: Majdi Mohammed/ AP

If, on the other hand, predictions of violence, mayhem and international opprobrium are borne out, Netanyahu will ostensibly find himself in a tougher spot, but one that he can manipulate to turn the tables. He will blame the same grand conspiracy about those gunning for him personally for Israel’s international isolation, the outbreak of hostilities on the West Bank and whatever internal upheavals both are bound to spawn.

Confronted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and armed with emergency powers that are about to be given to him by his cabinet and the Knesset, annexation could play straight into Netanyahu’s hands. International isolation and Palestinian violence will inevitably enrage the Israeli public, quickly erasing its awareness that it was Netanyahu’s unilateral move that sparked the conflagration in the first place. For a champion manipulator of public opinion such as he is, whipping up public frenzy, tunneling outrage towards external and internal enemies, conjuring a state of siege and implementing emergency measures to meet the challenges would be child’s play.

Seen in this sinister light, Netanyahu’s persistent efforts to foster a universal us versus them mentality and to undermine the Israeli public’s trust in its own institutions were merely in preparation for the decisive moment that annexation will happen. This could provide Netanyahu with the trigger for his endgame of avoiding trial and asserting autocratic rule. With the benefit of hindsight, annexation may come to be seen not as an end unto itself, not even as an assertion of historic biblical rights, but as a prelude for the dismantling of Israeli democracy itself.

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