Benny Gantz is right about one thing. As he said this week in several forums, in light of the spread of the coronavirus and the worsening of the economic situation, there is no justification for insisting on advancing annexation of parts of the West Bank. Possibly the coronavirus really will provide Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the final excuse to climb down from that tree, if not in a single leap then in a number of smaller steps. The public’s attention is not being given to annexation – and the prime minister has to take into account the possibility that declaring an annexation, even if it is small and symbolic, will add the final match needed for the bonfire of twigs to ignite.
July 1st has been and gone but Netanyahu has not yet made his intentions public. He is still waiting for a positive response from the American administration, which insofar as is known, was not given to him during the visit by the president’s emissaries in Jerusalem this week. In the past, Trump’s people emphasized their desire for agreement between Likud and Kahol-Lavan on the outline of the annexation. Gantz is continuing to oppose this but the political power relations in the Knesset clearly lean toward Netanyahu. It is still possible to assess that in the end, if he obtains America’s agreement, he will try to advance some part of the ideas about annexation despite all the warnings.
In the meantime, the defense establishment is continuing to probe in the dark. Before Operation Shield against Hezbollah tunnels on the border with Lebanon in the midwinter of 2018-2019, Netanyahu made a series of preparatory visits in the Northern Command. This time, he hasn’t shown up even once for a similar tour in the Central Command. The IDF top brass have not yet seen any detailed map of proposals for annexation.
Israel is not alone in the worry about the coronavirus. Israel and the West Bank are an interlocking system – and the moment the virus comes back here in full force, it also spreads into the territories of the Palestinian Authority (the isolated Gaza Strip has remained, for the moment, with little new infection). The number of infected Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has increased fourfold within two weeks, in Hebron many hundreds of new infected people have been found and on Thursday the Palestinian Authority decided to reimpose the full lockdown in all the West Bank cities. The Palestinian citizen’s existential worry is taking precedence over the concerns about annexation and the PA leadership is having a hard time recruiting him to the struggle. Most distressed of all are the employees of the PA, whose salaries have been cut in half since the decision to cease accepting the return of funds from taxes deducted in Israel.
Until such time as Netanyahu’s intentions become clear, the PA is continuing take a tough line. President Mahmoud Abbas has renewed contact with Hamas after a prolonged rift. On Thursday, in a rare move, Jibril Rajoub from the PA and Saleh al-Arouri of Hamas held a joint press conference against the annexation, with Rajoub speaking from Ramallah and Arouri from Beirut.
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Contrary to some of the reports in the media, the rift in the civil and security coordination between the PA and Israel is nearly total this time. Abbas declared it in May, in light of the annexation plan, and unlike in some of his other declarations from the past he is taking care to enforce it firmly against Netanyahu. This is complicating the situation on the ground immeasurably. During the past 15 years, whenever the IDF goes in for an operation to arrest wanted men in Area A of the Palestinian Authority, its brigade commanders would see to informing the Palestinian security organizations that they should bring their people back to the bases in order to avoid shooting incidents. This procedure was observed until the beginning of this week, but then, on orders from above, the Palestinian officers blocked the WhatsApp posts from the Israelis. Up against that, the PA cannot move its forces to villages in Area B to deal with criminal incidents, because this depends on coordination with Israel. The repercussions in the civilian area are varied and damaging, from delays in medical treatments to thousands of packages from abroad that the PA is refusing to pick up for its inhabitants from Israeli post office branches.
The IDF forecast is unambiguous: Every move of annexation, even if it is focused on a relatively small area, will influence the situation on the ground. Physical movements, like moving roadblocks, will encounter manifestations of violent resistance on the Palestinians’ side. After years of indifference, and despite the worries about the coronavirus and the economy, the public in the West Bank is liable to take to the streets. The force of the friction depends on a large number of variables – the depth of the annexation, its practical manifestations and the extent of the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to clash with Israel.