For Netanyahu, despite mounting opposition, annexation is already paying off

Theories abound to explain the PM’s move to claim parts of West Bank: a campaign tactic, a legacy bid, an opportunity granted by Trump. All are true, but that’s not the full story

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu observes the Jordan Valley with IDF officers during a tour in 2011. (Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu observes the Jordan Valley with IDF officers during a tour in 2011. (Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

An Israeli annexation of some part of the West Bank seemed all but inevitable just two weeks ago.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who made the annexation of most of the Jordan Valley and Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank his signature initiative in the run-up to the September 2019 election, has clung to the idea ever since, vowing to follow through with some as yet unclear version of his original annexation proposal in just three weeks, on July 1.

But challenges have mounted on all sides. Many settlement leaders now rail against the move because it comes as part of a broader Trump peace plan that includes the establishment of a Palestinian state, which they are opposed to. European leaders are warning of damage to ties — Germany’s foreign minister was in Israel Wednesday on an urgent visit to push back against the idea. The Democratic contender for the US presidency, Joe Biden, has warned against it. The Palestinian Authority is threatening to both disband and declare statehood. Jordan has warned it could rethink its peace treaty with Israel.

Israelis, for their part, appear to have responded to the idea with a collective yawn. It feels to most Israelis like a symbolic act with little practical meaning on the ground. A poll conducted in early June by the dovish Geneva Initiative found that a plurality of Israelis opposes annexation — 41.7% oppose and 32.2% support — but also that nearly all of its supporters view it as a low priority. Asked what they prioritized as the “most important” issues the government must address, top billing went to the coronavirus-ravaged economy (42.4%), followed by the fight against the virus (24.6%). Annexation came fifth and last at 3.5%.

A man walks by closed shops in the Mamilla Mall near Jerusalem’s Old City on April 22, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A similar poll using different language (for example, “annexation” was replaced with “applying sovereignty”) conducted for Channel 12 on June 8 offered similar results: 46% oppose, 34% support. Even among the self-described right, 39% oppose, 41% support. And where does annexation fit on the priority ranking? Once again, in the single digits: “battling the economic crisis” got 69%, “fighting the coronavirus” 15%, “annexing settlements in Judea and Samaria” 5%.

As the critics multiply and Israelis shrug, one question stands out above the rest: Why? Why does Netanyahu believe it is worth all the trouble? Why now?

Seeking a legacy

The annexation proposal was born as an election ploy. Netanyahu presented his plan to annex the Jordan Valley and Israeli settlements on September 10, 2019, a week before election day, in a transparent bid to draw votes away from the right-wing Yamina party in order to ensure Likud finished the race the largest faction in the Knesset.

But the idea soon became something larger for the prime minister.

Netanyahu is 70 years old. He believes his time in power may end soon. He is seeking his legacy.

It is an ironic challenge for the long-time leader. Netanyahu’s political success since his return to power in 2009 lies not in bold initiatives but in a kind of preventative theory of statecraft: Do no harm, avoid the many pitfalls and chaotic bloodletting of either withdrawals or wars.

Under Netanyahu Israelis rested quietly at night certain that there would be no withdrawals like the 2005 pullout from Gaza that ended in a Hamas takeover of the territory. There would also be no dramatic annexations or massive expansions of the settlements, at least of the sort that could make a future separation from the Palestinians unattainable. There would be no unnecessary wars in Gaza or in Lebanon, with Netanyahu always preferring to stop any rush to war, deescalate, and deploy Israel’s military and intelligence assets to weaken the enemy in a slow grind of covert operations, the so-called “campaign between the wars.” There would also be no (or at least not too much) irresponsible overspending by the political class, no dramatic shifts in the religious status quo, and so on.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior IDF officers tour the northern border on the Golan Heights, on July 25, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Netanyahu has called this approach “responsibility.” It isn’t passivity. Even as he remained largely motionless in the Palestinian theater, he struck boldly against Iranian entrenchment in Syria and worked ferociously to curtail and exact a high cost for Iran’s nuclear program — but never so boldly or so ferociously that he risked open conflict.

Caution may be admirable in a leader, but it is hard to sell as a legacy. Netanyahu talks constantly about Israel’s prosperity under his watch, its growing international profile and importance as a high-tech center. Those, too, while partly to his credit, are not easily forged into a defining legacy.

Then there is that maddening corruption trial that dogs his steps and looms over his political future. Netanyahu needs a new and different story about his premiership large enough to dwarf that trial.

Could a dramatic step forward in claiming a strategically significant part of the West Bank for Israel fit the bill? Does this desire explain his dogged determination?

Not quite. As Netanyahu well knows, a major move to annex part of the West Bank could go very wrong very fast. The knock-on effects might threaten the stability of the Jordanian regime and upend the peace treaty along Israel’s longest frontier. It could put wind in the sails of Islamist governments from Turkey to Qatar and weaken support for Israel among regional allies.

A US President Joe Biden, eager to show he is reversing Donald Trump’s policies, may decide to take the annexation as a sign of bad faith on Israel’s part, rescind Washington’s recognition of the move and bring massive pressure on Jerusalem for new talks and new concessions. Without US recognition, what remains of the annexation beyond an Israeli claim about itself?

The Arab world, pundits seem to agree, is sick of the Palestinian issue. But the Arab world is also sick of feeling as though it is losing ground. It is easier to respond angrily toward an expansionist Israel than toward other disruptive actors like Turkey or Iran.

A convoy of cabinet ministers drives off after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held the weekly cabinet meeting in the Jordan Valley, on September 15, 2019. (Amir Cohen/Pool via AP)

Netanyahu cannot meaningfully control the fallout from his annexation move. If it leads to the weakening of his much-vaunted regional “thaw” with the Saudis and Gulf state, what has he accomplished? If, to put the question in terms Netanyahu would treat with utmost gravity, it undermines the grand regional architecture of cooperation he has painstakingly constructed over a decade against Iranian encroachment, what happens to his legacy — and his country?

Trump’s backing

Trump is unquestionably a vital part of the equation, if only because Netanyahu has repeatedly said as much. The current administration provides a window of opportunity for implementing a longstanding right-wing aspiration that may not become possible again for an exceedingly long time, he has said.

Yet here, too, the explanation is insufficient.

The White House has managed in subtle and respectful ways, mostly through careful leaks to Israeli media, to let it be known over the past two weeks that it was unsure about backing an immediate and sweeping Israeli annexation. The White House is five months before a difficult election — one Trump is currently losing in all major polls — in a country reeling from the mass deaths of the coronavirus pandemic, mass protests over racism in policing and a steep economic downturn. Does it still believe it has the bandwidth and political capital to deal with any negative regional or domestic fallout from an Israeli annexation move?

US President Donald Trump (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk with reporters before a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, January 27, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Netanyahu is keen to anchor his annexation move on legitimization from Washington, but has faced a growing chorus of concern from settlement leaders over the Trump plan’s call for an independent Palestinian state on some 70% of the West Bank, as well as a reciprocal Palestinian annexation of Israeli territory as part of a grand swap.

Netanyahu has reportedly quietly confirmed to anxious municipal leaders in West Bank settlements this week that neither of those stipulations of the Trump plan — statehood and land swaps — would be implemented.

There is a limit, then, to the ability to argue that the annexation is a product of a Trump window of opportunity. Netanyahu appears willing to plunge ahead even as the Trump administration begins to balk.

A simple answer

To be sure, the Trump administration is still more likely than not to respond favorably to a limited annexation. And Netanyahu’s legacy matters to him deeply. Even with all its potential pitfalls, the prime minister can reasonably hope that future Israelis will judge him kindly for the move.

Yet none of these considerations can fully explain the urgency. A Netanyahu who long viewed any change to the status quo on the Palestinian front as brimming with potential threats suddenly seems to have lost sight of those threats. What caused the shift?

The answer is simple, and it has little to do with Netanyahu. If anything, it’s about Benny Gantz.

In a meeting Tuesday between Defense Minister Gantz and the mayors of Israeli municipalities in the West Bank, Gantz offered a snarky nugget of sage advice to the anxious settlement leaders. Coming out of the meeting, the settlement leaders remembered one Gantz line very clearly: “A Mapainik [member of a once-dominant center-left faction] once told me, ‘what they give you, take. The rest you can deal with later.'”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (second from L) meets settlement leaders at the IDF’s Judea and Samaria Division Headquarters in the Beit El settlement on June 9, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The West Bank mayors are divided. Roughly half back the annexation, reasoning that one doesn’t turn down the opportunity to extend Israeli law to settlements heretofore ruled by military dictates. The other half argues that any Trump-backed annexation would be Israel’s last annexation — that it wasn’t so much expanding Israel as giving birth to an independent and, in their view, dangerous state of Palestine.

Gantz’s comment to the assembled leaders was a riff off an old chestnut often heard in the army. The Hebrew even rhymes. It goes, “if they give you something, take it. If they hit you, run.” Pragmatic, cynical, obvious.

Meeting with a group that included right-wing rebels against the plan, Gantz could have tried to undermine the annexation by encouraging the rebellion. He didn’t. Instead, he tried to quell opposition by telling the settlement leaders to take what they could and assuring them that any possible Palestinian state that anyone attempts to establish down the road, “you can deal with later.”

From such closed-door meetings, occasional and usually vague public statements, and the provisions of the Likud-Blue and White coalition agreement, a consistent thread emerges in Gantz’s treatment of annexation: it is worth doing, he seems to believe, as long as the fallout can be kept to a minimum.

As the coalition agreement states, Netanyahu can propose annexation starting July 1 only as “an agreement reached with the US.” The broader implementation of the Trump peace plan must see the government striving to “maintain regional stability, maintain peace agreements, and strive for future peace agreements.”

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz (C) speaks to reporters during a visit to the Jordan Valley on January 21, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)

Here lies the missing piece, the point where Netanyahu’s efforts intersect with Gantz’s own beliefs, as well as those of foreign minister and Gantz’s fellow former IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi (who has backed annexation with the proviso that it not undermine the peace with Jordan) and generations of Israeli military thinkers and planners.

Israeli strategic thinking changed in the aftermath of three disastrous conclusions to territorial withdrawals: the years-long wave of suicide bombings that flowed into Israeli cities starting in 2000 from areas Israel left in the Oslo peace process; the rise of Hezbollah after Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon; and the rise of Hamas after the 2005 pullout from Gaza. It is hard to exaggerate the effect these experiences have had in inoculating Israelis, both policy planners and the public, against international, Arab or Palestinian pressure for further withdrawals, especially in the most strategically significant territory still contested by Israel, the West Bank.

Gantz and Ashkenazi reflect an almost wall-to-wall consensus pervading Israeli policy-making elites that power vacuums of the sort hungrily filled by Hezbollah and Hamas cannot be permitted in the West Bank, which includes the highlands overlooking Israel’s major population centers and shrinks Israel’s defensive boundaries to just nine miles wide on the coastal plain north of Tel Aviv.

The debate in Israel today between “left” and “right” — the substantive one taking place far from any limelight or political posturing — isn’t about whether to withdraw from the West Bank or not, but about how much control Israel must inevitably retain there.

Netanyahu’s focus on the Jordan Valley is no accident. The strip of territory has been a priority for Israeli military planners — including, for example, Gantz and Ashkenazi — ever since the first glimmerings of the Allon Plan were presented to the Israeli cabinet shortly after the 1967 Six Day War. The Jordan Valley, Israel’s current leaders believe, and in that reflect most Israeli political factions and policy-planning elites, cannot be abandoned to Palestinian security control.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) meets with heads of Israeli settlement authorities at the Alon Shvut settlement in the Etzion Bloc in the West Bank on November 19, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Netanyahu’s careful limiting of the rest of his annexation plan to the settlements themselves similarly reflects a widespread Israeli desire to avoid the demolition of civilian towns and homes of the sort seen in the Gaza pullout. Most of the settlers who are likely to find themselves under Israeli civil law if the plan goes ahead after July 1 would have been handed to Israel even in the “Clinton parameters” that reflected a kind of consensus of the Oslo years.

Annexation serves many purposes for Netanyahu. It is politically useful in the contest with other right-wing factions for right-leaning voters. He hopes it will come to be seen by Israelis as a crowning achievement that outshines the tarnish of his corruption trial. And it comes to take advantage of an unusual window of opportunity in the Trump presidency, one that may be closing quickly.

But the main driver of the plan is a more fundamental impulse: He believes it 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.

That focus has already paid off; instead of working to disrupt the plan, Gantz and Ashkenazi have committed themselves to advancing its most strategically valuable elements while working to minimize international and regional fallout.

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