Opinion

Will Netanyahu Surrender to the Annexation Camp?

The far-right that favors annexing the West Bank to Israel without giving Palestinians there equal rights are now increasing pressure on Netanyahu, trying to exploit his weakness as he is absorbed in the legal-political fight of his life

MK Bezalel Smotrich.
Olivieh Fitoussi

Writing a book about the period I served as Shimon Peres’ adviser led me to reexamine Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy moves, especially those I had seen up close. This experience has reinforced my conviction that someone who explains Netanyahu’s approach to the Palestinian issue as expressions of opportunism and character weakness makes his job too easy.

In my opinion, Netanyahu is sticking to a real strategy, the nature of which forces him to disguise his goal. Until now, he has managed to maneuver well against the pressure exerted on him from both left and right. But now that he is facing a critical battle for his very political survival following the police recommendation to indict him, it is increasingly likely that his power will erode to a point where he will no longer be able to remain loyal to his strategy.

Examining Netanyahu’s decisions over the years, the steps he has taken and the ideas he has stated when free to express what was on his mind, one may conclude that Netanyahu is not interested in the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria, nor is he interested in the immediate annexation of these territories. Netanyahu is focused on postponing any such decision. In his view, time is on Israel’s side, because a better geopolitical reality than exists today will emerge in the future. In this coming reality, Israel will be able, in his view, to obtain the optimal share of Judea and Samaria: maximum territory with a minimum of Palestinians.

Netanyahu is not worried that the long wait for regional stability requires continued Israeli reign over a foreign people. He believes that the 50 years of Israel’s hold on the territories shows the relative stability of this arrangement and its power to persist until the time for a permanent solution is ripe. Despite occasional outbreaks of terror and violence, Netanyahu sees a significant advantage in this arrangement: It allows Israel to claim that the situation is temporary, pending the achievement of a permanent agreement, and thus provides a justification for the denial of Palestinian political rights. In Netanyahu’s view, U.S. President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem declaration refutes the left’s claim that time is against Israel.

Despite occasional outbreaks of terror and violence, Netanyahu sees a significant advantage in this arrangement: It allows Israel to claim that the situation is temporary, pending the achievement of a permanent agreement, and thus provides a justification for the denial of Palestinian political rights. In Netanyahu’s view, U.S. President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem declaration refutes the left’s claim that time is against Israel.

What is the permanent solution Netanyahu envisions, for which we must show “strategic patience” and whose content should be concealed? One possibility is that the Palestinians will weaken to the point that they are satisfied with autonomy over a limited part of the West Bank, leaving security control to Israel (mini-state). The other is a “Jordanian solution,” with two possible models. In one, Amman adopts the Palestinians and places them under its flag; in the other, the Palestinians take over Jordan. Netanyahu sees an advantage in reaching an agreement with an existing state — Jordan. The negotiations would be easier because the central issue would be territory rather than self-determination: Israel would annex territories uninhabited by Palestinians, while those populated by Palestinians would be consigned to Jordanian sovereignty.

While the solution that has the Hashemite kingdom taking responsibility for the Palestinians has surfaced in various versions over the years, ”Jordan is Palestine” has been removed from the political discourse. Just putting it on the table would irreparably harm relations with Amman and lead to widespread international denunciation. Nevertheless, Foreign Ministry veterans remember the white papers disseminated after Likud took over in 1977. These documents heralded the claim that because Jordan was part of Mandatory Palestine and most Jordanian citizens were Palestinians, a Palestinian state already existed in Jordan.

An articulate speaker advancing this argument was Netanyahu himself. He did so eloquently in a 1978 debate with Prof. Fouad Ajami as a young student in the United States. And more than a decade later, in 1989, when he was deputy foreign minister, Netanyahu explained on the floor of the Knesset that since there was a common Palestinian identity shared by Jordan’s Arabs and the Arabs in the territories there was no reason why the Palestinian people should have two states. Although the “Jordan is Palestine” hasbara papers were removed from the Foreign Ministry’s shelves, my guess is that the notion itself was never completely excised from Netanyahu’s political doctrine.

Carrying out Netanyahu’s “strategic patience” strategy requires him to maneuver between external and internal forces that threaten to divert him from the target. He must protect the territories from the emergence of a Palestinian state that will demand their entirety, but he must also protect them from those on the right who seek immediate annexation. “Annexation Now” is as deplorable to Netanyahu as “Peace Now.” Annexation, even partial, would mobilize the world against and lead to a premature final status settlement before the strategic conditions favorable to Israel are ripe.

Because of his awareness of the “one state” danger Netanyahu has been reluctant to expand settlement construction beyond the existing blocs. But he has, of course, refrained from declaring this openly, dreading the reaction of his Likud colleagues and his right-wing partners. The leftist camp, which criticizes Netanyahu every time he gives in to pressure and approves building beyond the blocs, tends to ignore the fact that this is a deviation from Netanyahu’s strategy, not the strategy itself.

In my opinion, Netanyahu’s strategy is a disastrous gamble where the stakes are nothing less than the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. While he waits for a more favorable geopolitical reality, developments leading Israel to a violent and irreversible reality of a binational state are underway. As we continue to postpone, the damage inflicted by the occupation becomes greater, the spread of settlements expands, the possibility of dividing the land evaporates, and the Zionist dream is squandered away.

These left-wing arguments have not penetrated hearts and minds of the Israeli voter. Paradoxically, the left’s mission is likely to be realized more effectively by the “annexation now” advocates. They are now increasing pressure on Netanyahu trying to exploit his weakness as he is absorbed in the fight of his life for political survival. The more Netanyahu’s power is eroded, the more the strategy of “strategic patience” will collapse. It is not the peace camp, but the extreme right that will prematurely bring, in Netanyahu’s view, the decision-point on the future of the territories. The trickery of history may fulfill Netanyahu’s political nightmare and turn this untimely moment of a fateful decision into the moment Israel is forced to leave the territories.

Avi Gil is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and former director general of the Foreign Ministry. A book, “The Peres Formula, Diary of a Confidant,” is forthcoming (Kinneret, Zmora-Dvir).