Israel's Second Coronavirus Wave Stalled Annexation, but Netanyahu Still Wants It

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman and Yariv Levin view a map of the West Bank, February 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman and Yariv Levin view a map of the West Bank, February 2020. Credit: David Azagury / U.S. Embassy
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

I’m old enough to remember the days when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared victory over the coronavirus and moved on to focus intensively on a different topic – annexing 30 percent of the occupied West Bank. Neglect in contending with the pandemic and its consequences, in favor of focusing on annexation, was a major factor in the grave mismanagement of the second wave of the outbreak and the exacerbation of the economic and public-health crisis.

Netanyahu’s handling of the annexation issue raises serious questions about his judgment and the amount of forethought he gave to the move and its implications. This was clear as early as January 28, a few hours after to the festive White House ceremony at which President Donald Trump presented his plan. That same evening, Netanyahu declared that within a few days he would draw up a resolution on annexation and bring it to the cabinet for a vote. He held just one meeting on the issue with the army chief of staff, the director of the Mossad and the head of the Shin Bet security service – a few days earlier – and did not introduce it for debate in the security cabinet, despite being aware of the dubious legality of enabling a caretaker government to make such a dramatic decision.

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Furthermore, Netanyahu did not verify that he had a green light for annexation from the White House and ignored information suggesting that the Americans objected to the move at this time. The result was diplomatic and political embarrassment when he was forced to retreat less than 24 hours later. He blamed it on a “short circuit” in communication with the White House.

When Netanyahu returned to the issue of annexation in May, he didn’t change his behavior. He set July 1 as the target date for beginning the annexation and planned a hasty move that would be carried out within a few weeks. He discussed it with only a handful of confidants such as Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin. For weeks he failed to update Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and the inner cabinet on his intentions.

Netanyahu assigned the task of planning the annexation to the National Security Council, which reports to him directly. The Knesset’s State Control Committee received the council’s paper on the topic two weeks ago. A Knesset member who saw it described it to me as rudimentary, general and superficial to the point of embarrassment. After all, Netanyahu’s narrow time frame did not allow for thorough work.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 9, 2020.Credit: AFP

The annexation is expected to have dramatic implications for security, but the defense establishment initially learned about it from Netanyahu’s public remarks and from reports in the media. The defense establishment began its preparations for it independently and without having been given clear instruction. It was only at a later stage that the political leadership gave the military and the Shin Bet a preliminary reference scenario to work from.

Annexation also has diplomatic implications, including the possibility of sanctions against Israel, but the Foreign Ministry’s involvement in discussions that began in early May was only partial. The legal implications include the possible launching of an investigation against Israel in The Hague and a significant change to the status of parts of the West Bank that touch on Israeli civil law. Despite all this, the Justice Ministry was not involved in the discussions held by Netanyahu.

The second wave of the coronavirus has pushed annexation off the agenda for now, but if the pandemic is halted Netanyahu is likely to reintroduce it in September, in a last-ditch attempt to advance it before the November election in the United States. It would be a dirty last-minute play, of course, but beyond that, the failures in managing the coronavirus crisis should prove even to supporters of annexation Netanyahu’s limitations when it comes to managing such a dramatic maneuver.

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