If, two days before the election, you haven’t bothered to don your anti-spin protective vests, there’s no time like the present to do so. Anything that’s said or will be said in the week before the election not only should be taken with a grain of salt, but with at least two full shakers of it.
In the specific case of the periodic spin that comes from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there is another means of protection besides a metaphorical vest: Unlike with the other candidates, here we can compare and contrast his current promises in light of his many years in power. Do his dramatic words square with his past actions? Where has he stood until now on the issue?
The latest thing in the Netanyahu campaign is his supposed promise that the West Bank will be annexed during his next term. How can we tell that this is a key feature of the last lap of his campaign? Other than the timing, which already says almost everything, over the past few days Netanyahu has brought this message back onto his list of regular talking points, mentioning the possibility of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied territories no less than three times in a torrent of interviews and briefings to his favorite media outlets. That is not at all by coincidence, Haaretz was told by a few people aware of the goings-on behind the scene.
Increased support for annexation in recent years in right-wing circles in Israel has, over time, influenced Netanyahu as well. During most of his years in politics, going back to the days of his book, “A Place in the Sun,” Netanyahu tended to support a model of limited Palestinian autonomy, or a “state minus,” as he called the possibility of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel. But in recent years, the greater the competition from his right flank, especially by former Habayit Hayehudi figures Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Bezalel Smotrich, the greater the theoretical support Netanyahu expressed for the idea of annexation, behind the scenes and up front - while in practice, he actively thwarted all legislative initiatives in that direction.
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The clearest signs of the increased pressure on the prime minister began at the end of his previous term. He was forced to deal with a wave of legislation to annex the Jordan Valley, Ma’aleh Adumim and the settlements in East Jerusalem – the Likud Central Committee even took an official decision to annex the West Bank. Netanyahu had to tell his fellow faction members and others in the coalition that he was ideologically and in principle in favor of a future annexation, but this was not the time to act.
That’s how he explained to his coalition why he stymied all three bills on this matter, including by veto in the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. He was also absent from the celebrations in the Likud Central Committee the decision they took on West Bank annexation.
On the sidelines, laws were passed touching on Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, such as the law that brought Ariel University under the aegis of the Israel Higher Education Council, and one that included farmers in the settlements in the general egg-producing economy. Some would call Israel’s ongoing, effective takeover in recent years of Area C, which covers 60 percent of the West Bank, as de facto annexation. But as for more significant initiatives in the Knesset – Netanyahu stopped them.
The height of this process came in February 2018, when he announced he was discussing annexation with Trump. “I can say that I am conducting a dialogue on the matter with the Americans,” he told Likud Knesset members discussing the increasing number of initiatives to apply Israeli sovereignty, and his remarks reached the media. Netanyahu then said that two principles guided him in this matter: The first was that the law must be a government bill rather than a private member’s bill “because this is a historic move,” and the second, that there be “as much coordination as possible with the Americans, the relationship with whom is a strategic asset both to Israel and the settlements.”
But the Trump administration did not show support at the time for Netanyahu’s statement. On the contrary, the White House responded angrily that reports that the United States was discussing with Israel an annexation plan for the West Bask were false, and adding that the two countries had never discussed the subject. Netanyahu then quickly changed his version and explained that all he had done was “update the Americans on the initiatives raised in the Knesset.”
Senior coalition members told Haaretz that with regard to annexation, Netanyahu had indeed acted in what they called a “two-faced” manner. They said he frequently expressed his support in principle for the possibility, but stopped any attempt to actually move ahead on legislation. They compared this to other issues in which he had also expressed support but taken no action: The death penalty for terrorists, the evacuation of Khan al-Ahmar, legislation to outflank High Court of Justice rulings and the deportation of asylum seekers. These are all issues that the right wing pressured him heavily over, but to no avail.
That Netanyahu has not kept his ever more frequent pledges so far on this matter does not mean it won’t happen in his next term. An extreme right-wing government, in which Smotrich is not only an MK but a minister, could very well decide to ratchet up the pressure on Netanyahu to make good on his promises. The Trump administration might also have stepped back from its staunch opposition, gotten used to the idea and might even support it when the “deal of the century” finally sees the light of day.
This is not some illusion, not when the United States has already moved its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem and recognized the annexation of the Golan Heights. But three days before the polls open, Netanyahu’s talk of annexing the West Bank should be taken at something less than face value.
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