Whenever Israel’s knee-jerk critics around the world are salivating at the prospect of an imminent development, it’s a safe bet that this development is bad news for Israel. Likewise, if the regime in Iran can’t believe its good fortune. Similarly, if the boycott-Israel movement feels the wind beneath its wings.
That’s what’s happening now, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly declares his intention to begin annexing up to 30 percent of the disputed West Bank — potentially covering all the settlements, and the Jordan Valley area — from July 1, subject to American approval. (The move, if it goes ahead, will be formally termed not “annexation” but an “extension of Israeli sovereignty and/or law” to territory where Israel claims legitimate rights.)
It’s not entirely clear what Netanyahu really intends to annex: Will he declare Israeli sovereignty over all of the West Bank land allocated to Israel under the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” proposal, unveiled at the White House in January? Will he focus first on the 132 settlements, with the Jordan Valley to follow later, as he indicated to settler leaders earlier this week? Or will he begin with the main settlement blocs — the Etzion Bloc, Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel — as some Israeli officials have been quoted saying?
It’s also not entirely clear where the US Administration stands on the move — which negates the core, negotiated premise of the Trump proposal mere months after the much-anticipated intended deal was unveiled. President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner slapped down Netanyahu when the prime minister declared he’d begin annexing within days of the White House ceremony, stressing that a joint mapping team would first have to complete its work, and that Israel would have to have a fully functioning government.
Recognition by the Trump administration can and likely would be reversed by a subsequent president from the Democratic Party, whose gradual drift away from Israel can only be accelerated by unilateral annexation. Much of Diaspora Jewry is bitterly opposed to the move; much of the rest is discomfited
Israel does now have a proper government, but the mapping work is incomplete, and the administration — preoccupied with anti-racism protests and battling COVID-19 — is sounding what might best be described as ambivalent. It is saying both that annexation is entirely up to Israel, and that it needs to be part of discussions with the Palestinians.
For their part, the Palestinians have rejected the entire Trump plan, and on Tuesday revealed that they had submitted to the Quartet (US-Russia-EU-UN) a counter-proposal for a demilitarized Palestinian state throughout the West Bank with the possibility of some land swaps.
What’s most unclear, however, is why Netanyahu, after 14 years of quietly expanding Israel’s presence in the West Bank without dropping the international bombshell of unilateral annexation, is so hell-bent on annexation now — when it runs the risk of igniting violence on the ground, threatening Israel’s vital peace treaty with Jordan, reversing the gradual warming of Israel’s ties in parts of the Arab world, and shifting much of the international community from slumber into adversarial action.
His new-found enthusiasm only gathered pace in the course of Israel’s threepeat election campaigns, as he sought to encourage pro-settler voters to choose him and Likud over Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina and its various offshoots and factions. But not even all the settlers are with Netanyahu, since many of them regard the Trump plan’s conditional provision for eventual Palestinian statehood as unacceptable and, looking at the still-not-finalized maps, find numerous settlement communities at eventual risk of isolation within that future Palestinian entity.
The international community is overwhelmingly opposed to any unilateral action in the West Bank, with Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, one of Israel’s staunchest supporters, visiting Israel Wednesday on what amounted to a “please don’t do it” mission. Recognition by the Trump administration can and likely would be reversed by a subsequent president from the Democratic Party, whose gradual drift away from Israel can only be accelerated by unilateral annexation. Much of Diaspora Jewry is bitterly opposed to the move; much of the rest is discomfited.
Netanyahu argues that Israel has a unique opportunity, with so empathetic a president as Trump, to establish the legitimacy of its presence in the biblical Judea and Samaria.
But attempting to do so unilaterally will have the opposite effect: Much of the world community currently accepts Israel’s presence in the disputed territory, and its overall security control there, as an interim situation whose specifics will be finalized in bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations — as Israel has always demanded. And a goodly part of that world community recognizes that Palestinian intransigence has doomed such efforts to date.
We can be certain that Israel’s relentless critics are gearing up efforts to allege that the unilateral extension of Israeli sovereignty into the West Bank represents an iteration of apartheid, and to press for a punitive response
Unilateral Israeli annexation, by contrast, renders Israel the intolerant party, the party changing facts on the ground, and thus invites accusations that Israel is torpedoing prospects for a negotiated accord — turning Israel’s hitherto quietly tolerated presence anywhere and everywhere in the disputed territories into a subject of front-burner international focus. Already, in what is now a battle of two unilateral processes, some nations are said to be preparing to recognize the PA-declared state of Palestine.
While supportive friends such as Maas are frankly urging Israel to reconsider, we can be certain that Israel’s relentless critics are gearing up efforts to allege that the unilateral extension of Israeli sovereignty into the West Bank represents an iteration of apartheid, and to press for a punitive response. This depiction will be further fueled by Netanyahu’s own declaration that Palestinians in the annexed areas will not be eligible for Israeli citizenship, but rather will remain in non-Israeli enclaves under overall Israeli security control.
So why, then, is the worldly Netanyahu, this most calculating of politicians, so ostensibly determined to push ahead?
The new Israeli opposition leader, Yair Lapid, asserted last week that “it’s all spin,” implying that nothing will actually happen. Former ally Bennett, now consigned to the opposition benches, said Wednesday that “When I see Netanyahu talking about this so often, I’m convinced more and more that he’s not going to do it. If you want to do it, then do it.” Netanyahu’s journalist biographer, Anshel Pfeffer, is of the same skeptical opinion.
So long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved, a declarative Israeli move will not gain widespread recognition
But the prime minister has reiterated his intention over and over and over again. He could certainly find all manner of pretexts to back away — the fact that his ally Trump has so many other concerns right now, for a start — but is showing no inclination to do so.
Has Netanyahu decided that this is to be his legacy — as the Israeli leader who formally, permanently reconnected modern Israel to its formative biblical territory? Well, maybe. Except that so long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved, a declarative Israeli move will not gain widespread recognition. (Israel’s declaration of sovereignty over the pre-1967 Green Line in Jerusalem is not widely recognized. Even Trump’s 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital did not specify the scope of such Israeli sovereignty.)
My colleague Haviv Rettig Gur argued Wednesday that the prime minister believes the move is good policy. “Netanyahu’s initiative carefully tracks the boundaries of what most Israelis, including most of Netanyahu’s political adversaries, believe to be the country’s vital strategic needs,” wrote Rettig Gur. That might indeed constitute a valid case for annexation, but I’m not persuaded it justifies the dire potential downside — thoroughly evident to Netanyahu — of annexation now.
Is the gambit intended, then, to distract attention from the prime minister’s legal woes? That seems near-impossible to countenance — so much international disruption for such minor, if any, real personal benefit.
Or is it an overture to some cunning plan to pitch Israel into yet a fourth election, in which rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz is depicted as the obstacle preventing Netanyahu’s planned annexation, and the prime minister, already soaring in the polls, breaches his coalition deal and sweeps to a fresh victory without the radical inconvenience of having to hand over power to Gantz in November 2021?
That possibility, as well, seems just too radically cynical, even in this deeply cynical political era. Doesn’t it?
(A version of this article was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the ToI Community.)