When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his intention to annex the Jordan Valley a week before the election last September, it was perceived as a last-minute ploy to divert attention from his impending corruption indictments and a temptation for religious-Zionist voters to defect from the right-wing alliance Yamina to Likud.
The prime minister presented a map of land to be annexed, but the plan sparked little public debate at home or reactions abroad, and was swallowed up by the rest of the election campaign.
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That campaign came and went, followed directly by another, and Netanyahu is sticking to his message: U.S. President Donald Trump’s support gives Israel a rare opportunity to annex the Jordan Valley, so voters should keep in power the prime minister close to the White House and the Republicans. The poll numbers haven’t been affected, and Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc still lacks the majority to save the prime minister from a trial. Still, Netanyahu has planted the idea in the public consciousness.
The World Holocaust Forum being held in Jerusalem this week offers an opportunity to put annexation back in the headlines, safe in the knowledge that the many world leaders coming to honor the memory of the 6 million who perished in the Holocaust won’t spoil the event by criticizing Israel’s appetite for land. Netanyahu has won an enthusiastic supporter for the idea in his ostensible political rival, Benny Gantz, who staged photo ops in the Jordan Valley with top people in his Kahol Lavan party and promised to support an annexation “with international consent.”
On Friday, the editor of the right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon, Hagai Segal, quoted Gantz as saying he wants Jordanian and European consent for an annexation, not just American. Gantz knows that King Abdullah and the EU won’t recognize the extension of Israeli law into the Jordan Valley, but he won’t be able to hide behind them forever. This thin flak jacket is tattered.
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It seems Israel is marching toward annexation of the Jordan Valley, a largely desolate area that few Israelis visit but one considered strategically important. The timing is transparent: A year Trump is running for reelection and is thus keen to entertain requests from Jerusalem. Netanyahu isn’t doing anything new here.
Israel has always sought to exploit such situations to obtain diplomatic gains from Washington. U.S. President Harry Truman recognized the Jewish state minutes after it was declared in 1948, contrary to the wishes of his secretary of state and top administration officials, because he was running in an election from a weak position and needed the support of Jewish voters and donors.
On the current political map in Israel there’s a solid majority for annexing the Jordan Valley that includes the entire right-wing bloc, Avigdor Lieberman and now Kahol Lavan. It’s hard to recall that just a few years ago, Netanyahu opposed any annexation in the West Bank and insisted on maintaining the status quo, arguing that unilateral moves would harm Israel. But the settlers didn’t relent. They diverted a majority in Likud to their side and bid their time until Netanyahu was weak and needed them.
Now Gantz has also shifted from the “center-left” to the annexationist right. If a unity government is formed after the election, annexation of the Jordan Valley will be at the top of its agenda and will pass even if the left-leaning Knesset members in Kahol Lavan receive the freedom to vote as they please.
The left is also split. After all, the idea of annexing the Jordan Valley was first broached by Labor’s Yigal Allon in the famous plan for partitioning the West Bank that he proposed in the early stages of the Israeli occupation. Jordan Valley settlements were founded by Labor governments until the political upset of 1977 that brought Likud to power. Labor-Gesher chief Amir Peretz’s statement disavowing support for Gantz on annexation was pretty mild and made sure to mention the “vital security arrangements” for Israel.
Meretz and the Joint List of Arab parties were more vocally opposed, as expected, but this opposition only makes Gantz seem more like a nationalist, not a leftist. MK Ahmad Tibi’s warning to Gantz that if the Kahol Lavan chief supports annexation he’ll remain in the opposition didn’t faze the former army chief of staff.
Annexation of the Jordan Valley is part of Netanyahu’s position for decades: The West Bank and Golan Heights are Israel’s “defensive wall” that must not be relinquished. Before all the declarations about annexation, he talked about security control in the Jordan Valley in any future accord with the Palestinians. If he applies Israeli law there, or just initiates a political and diplomatic move completed by his successors, he will have chalked up his biggest achievement after more than a decade of running in place and stagnation in the peace process.
Israel will use security reasons to justify the annexation and cite the small number of Palestinians who live in the area. According to Peace Now, Netanyahu’s map would add 1,236 square kilometers (477 square miles) to Israel, 22.3 percent of the West Bank, an area currently home to 13,000 Israeli settlers and 4,500 Palestinians.
Foreign governments that complain about the burial of the peace process and the two-state solution will be told that the application of Israeli law is no impediment to peace talks in the future, just as the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 and the Golan Heights in 1982 didn’t preclude talks about their repartition with the Palestinians and Syrians.
The outcry from the Palestinian Authority is stirring zero interest from the international community right now, and the International Criminal Court in The Hague has trouble reading long documents about violations of international law, as Haaretz’s Noa Landau has reported. If Trump and his campaign managers give Netanyahu the green light, it’s hard to see what would prevent Israel from passing legislation, via the three necessary votes in the Knesset, to apply Israeli law and administration to the area of the Jordan Valley shown on the map appended to the annexation bill.
The only unhappy party will be Jordan, which enjoys the support of Israel’s defense establishment. Here the annexationists will have to be careful and creative to avoid a collapse of the peace agreement and the wide security latitude it gives Israel.