Back to Blair House: Inside Benjamin Netanyahu’s burst annexation bubble

The PM was in a world of his own, invoking historic leaders, vowing annexation in days. Now, the opportunity of the century could become the flop of the century

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks during a press conference with US President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House on January 28, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks during a press conference with US President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House on January 28, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON, DC — Close to 30 people were present in the large conference room on the first floor at Blair House on Tuesday, January 28. It was two hours after the dramatic, almost messianic White House presentation of Trump’s vision, which caused delighted frenzy in the prime minister’s entourage and sent his right-wing supporters’ spirits sky-high.

In the conference room sat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with his tourism minister Yariv Levin, Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer and head of the National Security Council Meir Ben-Shabbat to his left. To Netanyahu’s right were media adviser Shir Cohen and Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman. Other officials from the Prime Minister’s Office were standing elsewhere around the room. Two Israeli flags had been placed behind Netanyahu (as opposed to one Israeli flag and one American flag).

Netanyahu held a document with 23 bullet points that outlined the Trump administration’s plan. Before beginning the briefing, Netanyahu put on his reading glasses, perused the document and amended some points with his pen, ostensibly oblivious to the excited commotion around him. Then the premier delivered each point in turn to the press corps, relishing the reporters’ astonishment as he proceeded.

Many of the journalists seated in front of Netanyahu were deeply immersed in the drama. We were all still stunned by the historic event we had witnessed in the East Wing — the speeches, the ceremonies, the famous faces in the audience, the red-coated band that serenaded the guests with Dinah Washington sounds.

Now we had moved to this second, Israeli gathering, maybe 50 yards away as the crow flies. No one, least of all the prime minister, was overstating the historic importance of these events.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plants a tree during an event for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, in the West Bank settlement of Mevo’ot Yeriho, in the Jordan Valley, February 10, 2020. (Flash90)

Netanyahu started reading aloud. “Trump’s plan is a historic breakthrough with major achievements,” he began. He was speaking to us in the room, but his words were directed at the Israeli electorate.

The second bullet point dealt with the US consent to apply Israeli law to lands north of the Dead Sea and to the Jordan Valley.

In the third, Netanyahu stated that “Israel gets to immediately apply Israeli law on all settlements in the West Bank.” The emphasis here was on “immediately.” Netanyahu introduced two additional phrases on this matter: “All inclusive” — a term colloquially used by Israelis who go on vacation to popular Turkish resorts that offer unlimited food and drink along with lodging, at a fixed price; and “the status of Itamar is the same as that of Tel Aviv” – meaning the same legal rights and obligations will apply in any settlement as in Israel’s central city.

Bullet point four expanded on the “all inclusive” concept: “Recognition of expansive territories in Judea and Samaria that envelop the settlements and land reserves and ensure continued development,” he said. This is essentially the second phase of Trump’s plan — and several ministers in Israel’s government reject it. “We need to annex everything at once — we don’t need to get fired on in installments,” one minister told Netanyahu last week.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi, left, and Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, Israel, December 29, 2019. (Abir Sultan /Pool photo via AP)

In case it wasn’t clear, Netanyahu explained in point six that “there would be no removal” of any settlement, and in point seven that all this has the full and clear backing of the Americans. “We’re always asked why we don’t just declare sovereignty? It’s because the UN would have sanctioned us,” he explained. “Now the Americans will prevent any such sanctions against Israel.”

And then we reached bullet point number 8 — the crux of a subsequent worldwide debate, the heart of the internal argument within the Trump administration, the reason for the Arab world’s shock, the driving force for the pre-intifada-style activity in Palestinian Authority areas. The cause of immense excitement and then abject disappointment within the right-wing camp regarding the entire Trump plan.

Netanyahu again spoke of applying sovereignty in two phases. “The decision will be brought for approval at the next government meeting,” he promised.

This was not yet the Q&A part of the briefing, but I just couldn’t wait. “Next Sunday?” I asked Netanyahu.

“Yes,” he replied, nonplussed, as if this were stating the obvious. He looked at cabinet secretary Braverman for confirmation. “If not Sunday, then Tuesday,” he promised.

US President Donald Trump meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alongside US Vice President Mike Pence (C), US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (2nd R) and White House adviser Jared Kushner (R) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, January 27, 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Netanyahu continued reading his document, which sounded more and more like the abridged opening chapter of the Likud party platform. “Military governance over the settlements will be abolished. The settlers will be able to expand and build without limitation. Illegal settlements will remain in place. The idea of splitting Jerusalem — is gone. The notion of the Palestinian ‘right of return’ — gone.”

And also: “Before Israel will be obligated to acknowledge any Palestinian entity, the Palestinians must first demilitarize Gaza, acknowledge Israel as the Jewish state that includes the Jordan Valley and all other settlements, acknowledge Israel’s sovereignty of united Jerusalem, and abolish their law of return (for exiled Palestinians).”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with US President Donald Trump during an event with in the East Room of the White House in Washington on January 28, 2020. (AP/Susan Walsh)

During the Q&A segment, Netanyahu repeated many of these statements. He was uncharacteristically understated throughout. I’ve known Netanyahu for decades; it seemed to me that he was in his own bubble, detached. At one point, he compared himself to great leaders of history, who knew when and how to do what is necessary, despite all the objections and opposition around them.

The potential Palestinian state that he just announced he now dismissed casually, calling it “a limited, conditional sovereignty.”

A controversial suggestion within Trump’s plan, to transfer areas that are home to close to 220,000 Arab Israeli citizens to the care of the new Palestinian state, he waved away as “just an option.” The turmoil this part of the plan caused in Israel, the demonstrations that followed, the anger in the streets — all these were distant concerns, for another day.

US President Donald Trump (right) during an event with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the East Room of the White House in Washington, to announce the Trump administration’s plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, January 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Netanyahu said he was taken by surprise when he received the White House invitation for the unveiling of Trump’s “deal of the century.” It had arrived, he said, while he was focused on the World Holocaust Forum event in Jerusalem marking 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz.

Usually a cautious man with an antipathy for big changes, the prime minister got carried away by the opportunities he saw and promised to make history. January 28 — at the White House, and then at Blair House, in our press briefing, in his meetings with settlement heads, and his phone calls with his ministers — was the climax.

He was on an ideological high. Nothing mattered to him during that diplomatic nirvana, apparently not even the Americans. Netanyahu was certain they’d go along with him. He was Herzl 2020 — a secular Zionist messiah supported by the national-religious and evangelist communities.

He could see how it would all play out: Under his leadership, Israel would swiftly apply sovereignty to much of the West Bank, his Likud would get 50 seats in the March elections, and the criminal charges against him would dissipate like dust and ashes.

“Mr. Prime Minister, you’re going to divide Jerusalem,” I told him when he stated that the Arab neighborhoods beyond the security barrier — still part of the Jerusalem municipality — would come under the control of the new Palestinian state. “Divide? Give me a break. I’m just moving [the Arab neighborhood of] Kafr Aqab,” he responded, gesturing as if to say “no big deal.” I admit I was stunned. “You’re dividing Jerusalem, though perhaps also saving it,” I told him on his way out. He did not respond directly.

“You only get an opportunity like this once in a century,” Netanyahu said.

Within days, it would become clear that maybe only once in a century do you witness such a flop, as the Trump administration, led by Jared Kushner, made clear there would be no immediate annexation, and the settler leaders began to think they’d been sold a lemon.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman addressing a briefing hosted by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, February 9, 2020 (Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Jerusalem)

The final blow was delivered on Sunday, at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

“Israel is a sovereign state. But people should know that if the president’s position is simply ignored then we’re not going to be in a position to go forward,” said US Ambassador to Israel David Freedman, who on that Tuesday two weeks ago, following the White House event, had appeared to indicate Israel could start to annex territory immediately.

“We’re going to go through a mapping process to convert a map which is drawn of more than a million to one into something which really shows on the ground how the territory will be put together,” the US envoy elaborated.

“It’s not unduly difficult, but it’s also not simple, because there are a lot of judgment calls. We don’t want to do this piecemeal,” Friedman went on. “We want to do it once, holistically, in totality, and get it done right… That’s not too much to ask.” The White House now expects Israel to go along with that, he added.

Hearing that warning, settlement leaders, who just two weeks earlier were actually dancing on the streets of Washington, DC, announced they would shut down their local Likud headquarters for the March elections.

And Netanyahu was left with his three criminal charges to fight, no surge in the pre-election polls, and no clear prospect of forming the next government.

As of now, he’s no Herzl.

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