Opinion |

Netanyahu's Frenzied Rush to Annexation Threatens to Destroy His Legacy

In his desire to distract attention from his trial and bolster his base, the premier is undermining his own strategy of minimizing the Palestinian issue

Mickey Gitzin
Mickey Gitzin
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a national memorial ceremony, June 9, 2020
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, earlier this month. Even his ritual of negotiating, setting preconditions and torpedoing the talks is a distant memory.Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO
Mickey Gitzin
Mickey Gitzin

Traditionally, diplomatic and security-related issues determine the outcome of Israel’s elections. If Bill Clinton defeated President George H.W. Bush in America’s presidential race in 1992 with “It’s the economy, stupid” – Israeli voters have for years annointed whoever was more persuasive vis-à-vis “It’s the security, stupid.” Moreover, attitudes toward such issues, and toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, have always been the main criterion defining Israel’s political camps.

LISTEN: How Netanyahu could fudge annexation, hoodwink Gantz and cling on to power

But in recent years, there has been a change. Diplomatic issues have gradually disappeared from public discourse, especially during election campaigns. Candidates, always from the center and left, avoid them like the plague and do their utmost to say as little as possible about them.

Shortly after taking off his army uniform, former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz called for reaching a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians, warning that otherwise, “we’ll continue sinking into the swamp.” But the moment he entered politics, he his views were blurred and he vehemently refused to commit to any particular idea. In practice, Gantz made it almost all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office without the public ever knowing his position on this issue.

Similarly, almost all of Gantz’s predecessors over the last decade tried to evade the issue. None of them raised the banner of diplomacy high or waved it prominently.

There is one and only one reason for this: During his years in office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to make the Palestinian issue a non-issue. Granted, former Minister Naftali Bennett was the one who compared the Palestinians to a piece of shrapnel in one's backside, but the "copyright" here belongs to Netanyahu.

The relative quiet and the physical distance between Israelis and Palestinians helped Netanyahu turn his strategy of managing the conflict into official Israeli policy, even if doing so involved a ruse: We’ll continue to claim we seek peace, but do as little as possible to bring it about, while not embarking on any adventures that would cost us dearly in blood, end security cooperation with the Palestinians or provoke anger among the international community. Meanwhile, the situation will remain as it is. We’ll keep building in the settlements and the occupation will continue. The ironclad logic behind managing the conflict: To enable the temporary to become permanent, it must declare that it is temporary.

It’s enough to recall the talks between former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to grasp the change Netanyahu has brought about. Even the ritual of negotiating, setting preconditions and torpedoing the talks that characterized the first half of his term in office is now a distant memory.

As long as the government made do with managing the conflict, the public gradually forgot about it. Large parts of the opposition began muting their support for a two-state solution and their objections to the way the conflict was dealt with.

Even more than the issue of Iran, Netanyahu's symbiosis with U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration or his success in creating a cult of personality – his trick of making the Palestinians disappear may well be the premier's greatest achievement. Thus while the frenzied rush to annexation that he’s planning for next month may be seen as an attempt to leave a legacy, in the end, it’s liable to destroy his legacy.

In this sense, the settlers’ Yesha Council is right to oppose implementation of the Trump peace plan. Even today, with no public declarations, their dream is being realized on the ground. They can do as they please in the West Bank – control it, build on it and expand – while the Palestinians are left with no rights.

For the settlers, accepting the Trump scheme could only harm the settlement enterprise. One way or another, it will end in a Palestinian state, either as part of the plan or as a reaction against it.

Without minimizing the magnitude of the danger posed by annexation, it also creates an opportunity. After years of silence, the Palestinian issue will now rise to the top of the agenda. The West Bank, the occupation, the Palestinians and the diplomatic process will return from the margins of the news to the headlines. In his desire to distract attention from his trial and bolster the support of his base, Netanyahu seems to be undermining his own strategy.

Until now, the prime minister had an interest in minimizing the Palestinian problem and silencing discussion of it. He knew that in any such discussion, he would be opposed by the entire defense establishment, which supports a diplomatic agreement aimed at creating a Palestinian state and warns against annexation.

But now that the latter is no longer a theoretical issue, there is no choice but to start talking about the future of the territories once again. Much of the public has no idea what goes on not far away from them, how we reached this point and where we’re going. Now, a rare opportunity has arisen to start a conversation about these very issues – to talk again and again about the destructive consequences of annexation and, no less important, to present an alternative to Netanyahu’s dangerous vision.

The annexation adventure will once again prove that nothing stands behind the thesis guiding government policy – that anything that’s bad for the Palestinians is good for us, and vice versa – except incitement of voters. No plan or deal will change the basic fact that Israelis and Palestinians live here together and will continue to do so. Thus for us to flourish, they too need to flourish, and vice versa.

Mickey Gitzin is director of the New Israel Fund in Israel.

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