WASHINGTON, DC — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s curtailed visit to the US was dominated by the escalation in violence spurred by a Hamas rocket attack early Monday that leveled a home in central Israel, and by the landmark White House meeting the same day at which US President Donald Trump formally conferred US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Somewhat overshadowed were comments made by Netanyahu pointing to his intention to permanently retain all or parts of the disputed West Bank.
Behind the scenes at AIPAC, however, Israeli and American sources close to the two leaderships indicated that Netanyahu does indeed have partial annexation very much in mind if he is re-elected prime minister on April 9.
Soon after the White House ceremony at which Trump signed a proclamation that “the United States recognizes that the Golan Heights are part of the State of Israel,” a jubilant Netanyahu told reporters that the US move underlined “a very important principle in international life: When you start wars of aggression, [and] you lose territory, do not come and claim it afterwards. It belongs to us.”
Later, near the end of the journey home, he was more specific, telling the traveling press on his plane: “Everyone says you can’t hold an occupied territory, but this proves you can. If occupied in a defensive war, then it’s ours.”
Immediately realizing that Netanyahu may have been citing Trump’s Golan recognition as ostensible justification for potential annexation in the West Bank — “occupied territory,” as Netanyahu termed it, captured “in a defensive war” — US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hurried to clarify that the Golan Heights situation was unlike any other, and no precedent for further such steps.
Asked at a press briefing whether the president’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan — where Israel had extended Israeli law in 1981, in a move tantamount to annexation — sets “a precedent that powerful countries can actually overtake land over international law,” Pompeo responded emphatically in the negative. “The answer is absolutely not,” the secretary replied. “This is an incredibly unique situation. Israel was fighting a defensive battle to save its nation [when it conquered the plateau in 1967], and it cannot be the case that a UN resolution [requiring that it relinquish the territory to Syria] is a suicide pact.”
Nonetheless, the Israeli and American sources with whom I spoke set out a post-election scenario in which Netanyahu would indeed seek to annex at least the major settlement blocs — such as the Etzion Bloc, Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel — and to do so, ideally, with some degree of American backing.
In so doing, it should be noted, Netanyahu could consider himself to be drawing upon widespread Israeli support: A Haaretz poll this week found 42% backing for full or partial annexation of the West Bank. (This was broken down into 27% for full annexation, and 15% for annexation of Area C — some 60% of the territory. The poll did not ask respondents about the less dramatic annexation of only the major settlement blocs. Only 28% said they opposed any annexation. About a quarter of those polled were non-Jewish Israelis.)
Moreover, The Times of Israel was given to understand, the prime minister may seek to dangle the prospect of annexing the major settlement blocs — widely advocated in his Likud party and by parties to his right such as The New Right and the Union of Right Wing Parties — as an incentive for supportive MKs to ensure that his hold on the prime ministership not be curtailed by the imminent threat of criminal charges being filed against him. In other words, Netanyahu could explicitly or implicitly encourage MKs who want to see partial annexation of the West Bank to support legislation that would protect him from prosecution while in office. (Netanyahu is facing fraud and breach of trust charges in three cases, and bribery charges in one of them, pending a hearing. He denies any wrongdoing.)
In a television interview on Channel 12 news on Saturday night, Netanyahu initially dismissed the notion that he would seek or support legislation making him immune from prosecution so long as he is prime minister.
Seconds later, when asked to pledge that he would not do so, he backtracked to say he didn’t know, and then finally said he didn’t “believe” he would seek or back such legislation.
A series of hard-to-reverse gains
The Israeli and American sources noted the immense success Netanyahu has enjoyed in winning irreversible and hard-to-reverse gains from Trump: the president’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; his relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; his withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal; and this week’s US recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan.
After the elections, the sources noted, focus would quickly shift to the Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal on which the administration has long been working.
Unsurprisingly, The Times of Israel was given to understand, the plan being finalized by a Trump team that includes the president’s senior adviser (and son-in-law) Jared Kushner, Trump’s special representative Jason Greenblatt, and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has seen a variety of formulations considered — some of which would be almost certain to be rejected by the Palestinian leadership, and others that might be less unpalatable.
In an address to AIPAC on Tuesday, Ambassador Friedman passionately set out an approach that, if it is reflected in the Trump proposal, is likely to be swiftly rejected by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (The PA president has in any case preemptively dismissed the US plan, and has been boycotting the Trump administration since it recognized Jerusalem in December 2017.)
Expressing fears that a subsequent US administration would not appreciate “the existential risk to Israel if Judea and Samaria are overcome by terrorism in the manner that befell the Gaza Strip after the IDF withdrew from this territory,” Friedman stressed the imperative for Israel to maintain overall security control in the West Bank — a need that was also stressed during his AIPAC speech by Netanyahu’s main rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, and that has long been a cornerstone of Netanyahu’s policy. Asked Friedman: “Can we leave this [issue of peacemaking and the Palestinian conflict] to an administration that may not understand the need for Israel to maintain overriding security control of Judea and Samaria and a permanent defense position in the Jordan valley?”
By making clear that the Trump administration is deeply empathetic to the idea that Israel must maintain overall security control in the West Bank, a stance that necessarily prevents fully independent Palestinian statehood, Friedman indicated — though he did not explicitly say this — that the imminent Trump peace proposal would not provide for a two-state solution, and would thus be sure to be rejected by the Palestinians. (Incidentally, this week’s Haaretz poll found support for the two-state solution among Israelis to be a mere 34%.)
If Abbas does reject the plan, Netanyahu would likely publicly reiterate his repeated conviction that Abbas is not a viable peace partner, and, the sources said, move to annex the settlement blocs.
Friedman’s plea for ‘more progress’
Pompeo’s comments on Tuesday suggested that the US would not endorse such a move. Friedman’s AIPAC speech the same day, by contrast, left open the possibility that the US could endorse it, as the ambassador pleaded for “more progress” in areas where Israel and this administration see eye-to-eye.
“Can we leave this [issue of peacemaking and the Palestinian conflict] to an administration that may not understand that in the Middle East, peace comes through strength, not just through words on a paper?” Friedman asked his audience. “Can we run the risk that one day the government of Israel will lament, why didn’t we make more progress when US foreign policy was in the hands of President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary Pompeo, Ambassador Bolton, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and even David Friedman? How can we do that?”
“The answer,” Friedman went on, “is, we can’t. We will continue to work with the Israeli government, with the Palestinians, with other regional players, to pursue peace, recognizing that the diversity and strength of opinions on this subject suggests there will be some turbulence along the way. We will continue to pursue peace, because we believe we can be trusted to have the correct perspective and approach.”
Friedman, a longtime and proud supporter of the settlement enterprise, then concluded that section of his address with a plea: “To all of you here, to all those who may be listening to this speech in the future, to all who love Israel and support the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel, work with us, stay with us, pray with us for peace in the Holy Land.”
If Friedman’s speech is anything to go by, one American source suggested to The Times of Israel, “the next [Trump] tweet will be to recognize Israel annexing the settlement blocs.”