Analysis

The Best Chance for Israeli Right's Dream of Annexing the West Bank: The Palestinians

With Netanyahu victory, left's dream of a plan that would force concession on Israel seems more distant than ever

File photo: White House senior adviser Jared Kushner smiles as he watches U.S. President Donald Trump talk with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, March 25, 2019.
Carlos Barria/Reuters

Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory speech, delivered before dawn on Wednesday to hundreds of enthusiastic Likud supporters in a Tel Aviv arena, was largely devoted to describing the magnitude of his electoral achievement. But hidden between thanking the Creator of the Universe and complimenting his campaign team was an interesting policy statement. The prime minister talked about the “tremendous challenges we face,” among them “challenges of normalization and peace with the Arab world.”

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Some formidable tasks indeed await Netanyahu: forming a coalition, assigning the ministerial portfolios and, afterward, trying to pass a new budget, quickly, on the assumption that this will facilitate his government’s long-term stability. Constantly looming in the background will be the most critical goal for him: the effort to halt, or at least slow down, the relentless ticking of the legal clock, with the expected submission of three indictments against him (and the possible launching of a new investigation).

>> Netanyahu's next coalition: Annexation for immunity from indictment | Analysis ■ Netanyahu reelected: Everything you need to know about the prime minister's corruption scandals

It seems unlikely that he will succeed in pushing through the so-called “French law,” which would halt any legal proceedings against a serving prime minister. The discussion now revolves around restoring the original format of the parliamentary-immunity law, which would enable Likud to try to thwart any effort to lift Netanyahu’s immunity. That could also be of interest, for similar reasons, to other central figures in the coalition, such as Arye Dery (Shas) and Likud’s Haim Katz and David Bitan. However the scenario that was being mooted this week as the most likely envisions what was seen a few months ago as utterly improbable in a crisis-fraught country like Israel: Netanyahu might continue to head the government even as he stands trial. His coalition partners are likely to agree to this, and in the absence of an explicit prohibition, in the law and in court rulings, the High Court of Justice would not intervene.

These developments will unfold more or less concurrently with the U.S. administration’s presentation of its peace plan. President Donald Trump referred to that subject this week while congratulating Netanyahu on his victory, noting that the prime minister’s reelection improves the prospects for peace. But the left’s old fantasy about an American diktat that will force Netanyahu to make far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians appears highly unrealistic. Trump and Netanyahu appear to be coordinated in all their moves. In fact, the American leader just keeps heaping gifts on Netanyahu: In addition to the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran and the recent recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, there was – right on the eve of the election – a U.S. declaration that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are to be considered a terrorist organization.

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In a Hebrew tweet, Netanyahu thanked Trump “for acceding to another important request of mine.” The prime minister’s tweet in English about the decision made no mention of Israeli involvement.

The “deal of the century,” if it’s actually presented after multiple postponements, is likely to be relatively convenient from Israel’s point of view. It should allow Netanyahu, even if he’s heading a right-wing coalition, to respond positively to it even as he suggests a few reservations, as we wait for the anticipated rejection by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In the background, the fantasy of the right wing will await realization: annexation of part of the West Bank, ostensibly as a unilateral implementation of clauses in the Trump plan after the Palestinian “no.” The right’s hope is that the American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights will act as a precedent, as it’s based on the same grounds: seizure of territory during a war of self-defense that was forced upon Israel. In fact, the two territories were seized at the same time, during the Six-Day War.

Robert Satloff is the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The institute maintains close ties with the Israeli establishment, and a period of research work in it is considered almost obligatory for ranking defense establishment officials after they conclude their term of service (former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot will soon be ensconced there). However, in an article Satloff published in Foreign Policy immediately after the election in Israel, he warns that the presentation of the Trump plan in the near future will be disastrous. “It would be a serious mistake for U.S. President Donald Trump to take the still-secret proposals devised by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his colleagues and issue them in the name of the United States,” Satfloff writes.

Satloff anticipates the plan’s failure. The rift between Israel and the Palestinians is too acute, and the extreme closeness between the administration and Israel does not allow Trump to be considered an honest broker. The plan will set back American interests in three critical realms, Satloff forecasts. It is liable to lead to Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank, to give Saudi Arabia heightened bargaining power over the United States (which needs Riyadh to advance the plan), and to divert attention from a significant administration achievement in the region: namely, ratcheting up the pressure on Iran. The “murky” status quo between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, manifested in the continuing and effective security coordination between them, could collapse like a house of cards when Abbas rejects the plan, observes Satloff. At the moment, he stresses, it’s the “Kushner plan,” not the “Trump plan” – and the president needs to ensure that it stays that way.

Rising anxiety

Netanyahu first expressed support for annexing sections of the West Bank toward the end of the election campaign, when he still feared the loss of votes by Likud to parties to its right. Like any campaign promise, after the election, its fulfillment is a completely different proposition. The prime minister could leave the idea hanging in the air, as a future enticement for his partners, and say that it can’t be implemented now because the political conditions aren’t ripe for it.

But the sheer idea of annexation – and the Trump plan in general – is already stirring anxiety not only among the Palestinians but in Jordan as well. Abbas, who took part in an economic forum this week in Amman, did not deliver a speech at the conference. The foreign minister of Oman, Yusuf bin Alawi, angered some of the participants by saying that the Palestinians “should help Israel to get away from” what he said was its mistaken sense of being threatened. The Palestinians are apprehensive that Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states with close ties to the Trump administration, will adopt the American initiative and cast them aside as they forge diplomatic ties with Israel.

That’s an unlikely scenario, but Palestinian suspicions of Trump are at their height. The Jordanians are concerned about the possible implications for them: a new outburst of violence on the Temple Mount or in the territories, which will spill over into the Palestinian refugee camps in the Hashemite kingdom. Jerusalem is also a potential hot spot in these circumstances. A scenario put forward in the Israeli defense establishment sees the PA’s security forces choosing to stir up feelings over the Temple Mount as a way of protesting the Trump plan, which presumably will grant the Palestinians only an inferior status in the city.

Amid the noise of the election, the Israeli media forgot about events in the Gaza Strip. The past two weeks there, following the March 30 Land Day demonstrations, have in fact been unusually quiet. The Israel Defense Forces, keeping a deliberately low profile, reduced their beefed-up presence around the Strip. Hamas leaders didn’t offer Netanyahu their congratulations in the manner of Trump, but they too are probably not in mourning.

Netanyahu’s policy, to keep the West Bank and Gaza isolated from each other, serves Hamas far more than it does the PA. Both sides are showing greater readiness to strike a deal for a long-term cease-fire in Gaza. Hamas has fewer options for pressuring Netanyahu following his election victory. The high proportion of votes for Likud in such cities as Ashkelon and Sderot shows that many of the residents of the communities bordering Gaza will back any decision the prime minister makes.

File photo: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends the the 30th Arab Summit in Tunis, Tunisia, March 31, 2019.
Fethi Belaid/AP

During the past decade, Netanyahu has displayed considerable caution in his use of military force, notably in the Gaza Strip. If there’s a future danger, it lies in the possibility that the election victory will give rise to hubris in an invincible leader and induce him to take unwise security gambles. So far, there’s no sign of this happening. However critical one may be of Netanyahu’s conduct in other spheres, his reluctance to get involved in unnecessary wars is worthy of praise.

This is Netanyahu’s fifth election victory (there were also two losses, in 1999 and in 2006, which he rarely mentions). The triumph of the right-wing bloc was no surprise – it was forecast by most of the pre-election polls. In addition, many Israeli media consumers are adept at factoring in the structural assumption that the real results will be even better for the right wing than the polls and the Election Day exit polls indicate. Netanyahu keeps winning because – in the eyes of his voters – he is not only a political magician but a meta-statesman who is able to preserve the country’s security despite adverse regional conditions and frequently shifting circumstances. In contrast to the hopes of his opponents, the accumulation of suspicions against him in the legal realm did not affect the course of the election. Most right-wing voters probably still think that protection of their personal security takes precedence over allegations of corruption. Others appear not to believe the accounts of the police and the prosecution.

We are in the midst of the traditional period of self-flagellation on the left, which will undoubtedly provide grist for the mill of dozens of op-eds in Haaretz in the weeks ahead. But in contrast to some immediate claims, the left hasn’t really been erased and it hasn’t disappeared. The votes shifted within the bloc, from Labor and Meretz, which were seen to be less relevant in terms of what voters wanted, to Kahol Lavan, which for a moment seemed to have a chance of defeating Netanyahu. The desire to oust Bibi was the central consideration for its voters. But the major reason for the result lies in a numerical disparity that the left is unable to overcome, together with a political taboo that it’s still not capable of shattering. For almost two decades, the right-wing camp has been slightly larger than that of the left. The ultra-Orthodox parties have an automatic affinity for a right-wing government (and will act in contradiction to that tendency only if there’s a real danger that they will be left out of the government), while it is anathema to consider the Arab parties in coalition calculations.

A photo taken on April 12, 2019 shows Israeli flags in front of a partial view of the Israeli settlement of Efrat situated on the southern outskirts of the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
THOMAS COEX / AFP