Netanyahu’s prescient warning about when a PM shouldn’t make ‘fateful decisions’

He urged Olmert to quit because the burden of battling graft allegations might cloud a PM’s judgment. Now he’s insistently pushing annexation despite the fears of experts, allies

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Ehud Olmert at a ceremony marking the transfer of prime ministerial power, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 1, 2009. (Daniel Bar On/Pool/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Ehud Olmert at a ceremony marking the transfer of prime ministerial power, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 1, 2009. (Daniel Bar On/Pool/Flash90)

July 1 has come and gone and, as of this writing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to announce his planned unilateral annexation of the 30 percent of the West Bank — all 132 settlements, home to some 450,000 Israelis, and the strategic Jordan Valley — allocated to Israel in the Trump administration’s proposal for “a realistic Two-State solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Under the terms of his coalition deal with rival-turned-ally-turned-rival Benny Gantz, Wednesday was the day the prime minister became able to begin advancing the annexation move — by either government or Knesset vote — and he almost certainly has majority support in either forum. But the dense wording of Clause 29 in that coalition deal also conditions such a move on “agreement to be reached with the United States on the application of sovereignty,” and it is unclear that Netanyahu has obtained such US agreement.

Introducing his “Peace to Prosperity” vision at the White House on January 28, US President Donald Trump promised that his administration’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the 30% would be “immediately achieved” as soon as a “more detailed and calibrated rendering” of the plan’s conceptual maps was completed. Netanyahu concluded and declared that this meant he could start annexing within days; Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner swiftly disabused him of the notion; US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has since repeatedly said that the annexation decision is Israel’s to make; talks involving the key US players at the White House last week produced no definitive announcement; and there has been much speculation that the US is reluctant to green-light the Netanyahu move so long as Gantz is not on board.

From left to right: Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the prime minister’s chief of staff Asher Hayoun, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

And Gantz is not on board: Although he has said Israel won’t wait forever for the Palestinians, he also made clear this week his belief that unilateral action is premature. The Trump plan needs to be advanced “correctly, in bringing as many partners to this discussion from the countries of the region, with international backing,” Gantz said Tuesday. “[We must] make every effort to connect with them and only then continue. And I think all means to bring in the players have not yet been exhausted.”

US peace envoy Avi Berkowitz (L) with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman in Jerusalem on June 29, 2020. (Avi Berkowitz/Twitter)

All kinds of speculative reports have emerged from the ongoing discussions on annexation between Israeli and American leaders — which have been continuing all week in Jerusalem, with Trump envoy Avi Berkowitz and Scott Leith from the US National Security Council, a key member of the mapping team, having flown in: The US wants Israel to offer the Palestinians some kind of gesture as part of any annexation move; the US is inclined to green-light annexation only of the major settlement blocs; Netanyahu is pushing to remake the maps to render relatively isolated settlements less isolated…

All this confusion and speculation is inevitable in the current surreal and unforgivable situation which sees the prime minister and the alternate prime minister meeting separately with the Americans — that is, lobbying separately, and contradicting each other, over which approach our vital ally should endorse, over what truly constitutes the Israeli national interest.

The prime minister’s annexation gambit has unleashed an avalanche of criticism — including from some of Israel’s own most credible security experts, who worry about the headaches and challenges for the IDF and other security bodies in their dealings with the Palestinians, and the distraction from the focus on thwarting would-be nuclear Iran — long a rightfully central preoccupation of Netanyahu’s. Many of Israel’s closer international allies, meanwhile, are warning that the unilateral extension of sovereignty into the disputed West Bank will deprive Israel of the peace-seeking moral high ground and alienate the Jewish state even from many of its erstwhile supporters and defenders. The planned move has unsurprisingly galvanized our detractors and enemies — who relentlessly probe for Israeli weakness and are relishing the prospect of comparing Israel to apartheid-era South Africa.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center left) and Yesha Council chairman David Elhayani seen during a tree planting event for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, in the West Bank settlement of Mevo’ot Yeriho, in the Jordan Valley on February 10, 2020. (Flash90)

Despite all this, and despite the fact that the US may have a different leadership a few months from now that will oppose any unilateral move and reverse any recognition, Netanyahu is still giving every indication that he is intent on going ahead. “We will continue to work on” the sovereignty issue, he said after talks with the US envoys Tuesday. On Wednesday, his office promised “additional discussions” in “the coming days.”

Clearly, Netanyahu had hoped to at least make some kind of dramatic declaration on July 1, even though advancing annexation requires his full acceptance of the American plan — with its conditional endorsement of a Palestinian state, and with its widely overlooked provisions for substantial areas of today’s sovereign Israel to be handed over to Palestinian rule in exchange for that extended Israeli rule. He had hoped to move ahead as of Wednesday even though the mapping work is not complete, and even though he has not briefed the IDF and security establishement — or reportedly, for that matter, the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry — on what exactly he is planning.

Irritations everywhere

His inability to move ahead thus far has left him overtly frustrated. And that’s not the only source of his frustration.

Netanyahu is profoundly irritated that Gantz, fading fast in the polls but holding equal representation in his government, is managing to walk the tightrope of opposing annexation now while backing the Trump plan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with then-Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, September 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Menahem Kahana, Pool)

We are also seeing prime ministerial frustration playing out in his intensifying assaults on his own attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, whom he on Tuesday accused of marshaling “a scheme” to oust him from power. This, after Mandelblit opposed Netanyahu’s request to receive some NIS 10 million ($2.9 million) in outside funding for his legal defense in his corruption trial, saying the donation was tantamount to an illicit gift. (One of the three cases against Netanyahu revolves around alleged illicit gifts.)

And then there’s the re-rise of COVID-19.

Along with his efforts to advance annexation, and the demands of his corruption trial, Netanyahu is principally occupied with overseeing Israel’s battle against the pandemic, which is going increasingly awry after the initial months in which Israel minimized contagion relatively effectively. Not only are new daily cases now rising above their previous highest levels of early April, but the economic fallout is deepening.

Unemployment is still above 20%, and the inadequacy of the government’s policies for compensating the workforce was emblemized last week when the Fox fashion chain, which had been awarded an estimated NIS 13-18 million in government assistance, announced that it was paying its shareholders a dividend two to three times that amount. This dividend announcement came even as small businesses and almost every other sector of the workforce have been desperately appealing for government help to almost no avail. (Under fire, Fox, whose owner Harel Wiesel had been aggressively, and it is now clear, hypocritically, demanding government assistance, shamefacedly said it would return the millions it had wrangled from the Treasury.)

Israeli social workers protest their working conditions and violence against them, outside the Knesset on June 25, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This week’s demonstrations have seen everyone from independent and small businesspeople to social workers to tour guides pleading for financial help.

Events promoter Rami Beja speaks at a press conference held by artists and people from cultural and artistic institutions amid the Covid 19 pandemic, on May 25, 2020 in Tel Aviv. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

An events promoter named Rami Beja summed up the mood of that substantial part of the nation that believes the prime minister is getting his priorities wrong, pleading with Netanyahu in a TV interview: “Annex me! Apply sovereignty to me.”

When his predecessor Ehud Olmert was under investigation for corruption — long before the probe had reached the trial stage where the prime minister now finds himself — then-opposition leader Netanyahu demanded that Olmert resign. “A prime minister up to his neck in investigations has no moral or public mandate to make fateful decisions for the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said of Olmert in 2008. “There is a fear, I must say, and it is real and not unfounded, that he will make his decisions based on his personal interest for political survival, not on the national interest.”

Up a tree with his high-risk annexation gambit, flailing bitterly at the attorney general who had the temerity to indict him, and under increasing domestic criticism over his handling of the pandemic, Netanyahu has rarely manifested such irritation and frustration. And the fear he so articulately expressed in 2008 has rarely seemed so well-founded.

An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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