Prospects for Israeli annexation of the West Bank have never seemed rosier for supporters of the move than within the halls of Jerusalem’s Crowne Plaza Monday, as right-wing lawmakers, policy wonks and activists gathered to fete what they see as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity created by the ascension of Donald Trump to the US presidency.
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boarded a plane to Washington to meet with Trump, eight ministers — and Israel’s president — were freely gabbing about the idea, no longer implausible in their eyes, at the B’Sheva Jerusalem Conference.
All that was left to work out, as they saw it, were the details.
Since the US election, emboldened by Trump’s perceived support for settlements, ministers have increasingly called for annexing portions of the West Bank. That mainstreaming of annexation reached a fever pitch at Monday’s conference, with an impressive line-up of senior politicians openly backing the move — even though the prime minister has given no indication he will budge from backing two states.
The politicians took to the stage, one after the other, bidding Netanyahu good luck and stressing they are “100 percent” behind him. But the two-state solution — which the prime minister may endorse in his talks with Trump, while stressing it won’t happen anytime soon — was not merely dead in the hall, but forgotten (except by opposition leader Isaac Herzog, that is).
Cosseted by like-minded ideologues, the ministers openly presented their worldviews to the pro-settlement crowd, laying out their ideas on the ABCs of the new diplomacy vis-a-vis the settlements: annexation, building, citizenship. But while they agree a Palestinian state would be a Trump-style “disaster,” there is consensus on little else.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan urged immediate annexation of areas that Israel will retain under a two-state deal and stepped up building construction throughout the West Bank, not merely within the settlement blocs. This “price” for recalcitrance by the Palestinians will push them back to the negotiating table, he argued, signaling that a two-state deal was his end goal.
Culture Minister Miri Regev said there was only room for one state between the Mediterranean and Jordan, and Israel must weigh its options regarding the Palestinians, from “citizenship to autonomy.” Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel called on the government to adopt the 2012 Edmund Levy report that recommended legalizing West Bank outposts. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz declared Netanyahu must give Trump a firm “no” to a Palestinian state, and say “yes” to an “expanded” Jerusalem.
Leading the pack on annexation for several months, Education Minister Naftali Bennett doubled down on his proposals, but did not appear to expand the plan beyond the partial annexation of Area C to start. His fellow party member Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked called for annexation of the Etzion bloc and Ma’ale Adumim as an initial step, with eyes on international recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the entire West Bank.
The world has yet to recognize Israeli control over East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights, Shaked conceded. “It takes time,” she said, but Israel must act. Like former prime minister Menachem Begin, Israel should not necessarily seek Washington’s okay as the Trump administration may say no, creating “unpleasantness,” she added.
Even a noncommittal Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said a Palestinian state was “not realistic at the moment,” but said he would back the two-state solution if the Palestinians agreed to a demilitarized “state minus.” Kahlon said Netanyahu did not reveal to the high-level security cabinet what he would tell Trump, but added, “I have no doubt the prime minister desires to keep Greater Israel.”
Netanyahu has not offered any indication of support for annexation, but critics accuse him of also doing little to advance a two-state solution.
The most dramatic of all proclamations was that of President Reuven Rivlin, who declared his support for annexation but hinged it on full citizenship rights for the Palestinians.
The president, who while squarely on the right has alienated some right-wing voters with his unwavering emphasis on Arab Israeli minority rights, was clearly at home in the hall. He was cheered when he triumphantly waved his Palestinian land registration papers and revealed that he had been embroiled in an 11-year legal battle after purchasing private Palestinian land decades ago outside of Jerusalem.
I am on your team, your fight is my fight, was the message of the president’s opening address. But we have to do this right.
Trump: US president, friend of Israel, ‘messiah?’
Despite noises out of Washington indicating Trump may not be the white knight the settlement movement has been waiting for, hopes that his administration will usher in a new era for the settlement movement were hardly dampened in the Jerusalem conference hall.
Ministers such as Erdan and Regev touted as proof of the new approach the White House statement from earlier this month that said settlements were not an impediment to peace, neglecting to mention the second half of the statement, which called the construction “unhelpful.” (Trump, in an interview Friday with the Israel Hayom daily, said the same).
Words such as “hope” “optimism,” “new era,” “historic opportunity,” and “great friend” peppered nearly every speech by the right-wing Israeli leaders.
A notable exception was settler leader Yossi Dagan, who warned again and again that Trump was “not the messiah” and criticized the prime minister for reviving the two-state solution formula.
Pouring some cold water on the expectations, the Samaria Regional Council leader — who attended the inauguration in Washington and met some administration officials — said Netanyahu had Trump’s ear but was not utilizing the opportunity adequately for his right-wing base.
“I say this as someone who loves the prime minister, who respects him and thinks he’s a good leader for the State of Israel,” said Dagan.
The GOP removed the two-state solution from its platform, and “Netanyahu put it back on the table,” he said. The Trump administration doesn’t distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated settlements yet “we are talking about blocs,” he added. “This is illogical, it cannot be… it’s dangerous.”
“We must not think, it’s wrong to think, that they will make decisions for us,” said Dagan. “Trump will never make a decision to annex Ma’ale Adumim. Trump will never make a decision on building in Judea and Samaria. Trump will always be more left-wing than us.”
The ball is not in Washington’s court, he added. “The ball is in Jerusalem.”