Annexing voters: How Netanyahu’s Jordan Valley pledge could hurt election rivals

Annexing voters: How Netanyahu’s Jordan Valley pledge could hurt election rivals

PM’s promise to apply Israeli law to parts of the West Bank appears to be aimed at siphoning Yamina supporters to Likud and pushing Blue and White backers to Democratic Camp

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a map of the Jordan Valley, vowing to extend Israeli sovereignty there if re-elected, during a speech in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a map of the Jordan Valley, vowing to extend Israeli sovereignty there if re-elected, during a speech in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “dramatic announcement” that he plans to annex the Jordan Valley and then other parts of the West Bank should he form a government after next week’s election could appear, at first glance, to be an attempt to persuade voters to choose his Likud party over his Blue and White rivals.

“Who do you want to negotiate with President Trump? Me or [Benny] Gantz and [Yair] Lapid, who have said they want ‘to implement the Disengagement elsewhere’?” he said of the 2005 Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip (misquoting — likely deliberately — Blue and White leader Gantz’s first ever political interview, where he actually said that “the lessons of the Disengagement should be implemented elsewhere”).

Appearances aside, however, the declaration is hardly likely to sway many Blue and White voters from the centrist, anti-Netanyahu faction to Likud. And Netanyahu knows this. Rather, his announcement is more likely intended to help the Likud siphon supporters away from other right-wing parties and, at the same time, see Blue and White bleed voters to the left.

Polls currently show that September’s election could herald a repeat of the gridlock after April’s national vote, when neither the Likud nor Blue and White had enough support from other parties to form a coalition. The very real possibility this time is that neither party will get the recommendations of 61 or MKs in the 120-member Knesset for its leader to form a government. So both are now focusing their efforts on becoming the largest party — Blue and White currently leads the Likud by one seat in most polls — even at the expense of others within their respective right and left blocs, in order to be given the opportunity by the president of forming a coalition.

In that context, Netanyahu’s sovereignty promises Tuesday seems geared toward both allowing his Likud to grow its right-wing support base, and simultaneously, pitting the left-wing Democratic Union party against Blue and White, potentially causing Gantz’s voters to leave him.

Siphoning support from Yamina to Likud

On the right, Netanyahu is being challenged by both the newly formed Yamina alliance of right-wing parties and the extremist Otzma Yehudit party which he has warned could waste right-wing votes by failing to pass the electoral threshold. Announcing that he plans to adopt a more hard-line approach to West Bank annexation, and sowing fear that if he doesn’t, Gantz could give up swathes of Greater Israel, the prime minister is making a bid to “steal” Yamina and Otzma voters and turn them into his own.

At the same time, he hopes to neutralize the criticism of his right-wing credentials being leveled at him from those right-wing satellites.

Yamina chairwoman Ayelet Shaked (R) introduces her party’s housing plan in the Etz Efraim settlement on August 21, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

“When Netanyahu established coalitions with left-wing parties, like in 2009 when he sat with Ehud Barak, he released a thousand terrorists, froze building in the West Bank, and gave the Bar Ilan Speech [accepting the principle of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict],“ Yamina leader Ayelet Shaked told The Times of Israel in an interview last week. “We then entered politics and changed the reality. We began to move to a discussion of applying [Israeli] sovereignty [over the West Bank] — away from a discussion of a Palestinian state.”

Now, by saying that he will implement that same promise of sovereignty for parts of the West Bank, Netanyahu is trying to claim the mantle of the true leader of the settlements, cut his right-wing rivals — primarily Yamina — down to size, and win their supporters.

Doing so could help him close the gap on and overtake Blue and White, even without increasing the overall votes for the right-wing bloc.

Turning Blue and White supporters to Democratic Camp

As for his rivals on the other side of the political spectrum, by stirring up leftist anger at the idea of West Bank annexation, Netanyahu may be trying to damage Blue and White by causing its own voters to flee toward the left-wing Democratic Camp.

Indeed, the prime minister’s announcement put Blue and White in somewhat of a bind. The party has vowed to oppose unilateral moves toward either settlement evacuation or annexation. But it has also specifically vowed to retain Israeli control over the Jordan Valley.

Blue and White responded to the promise to annex the Jordan Valley with an attempt at derision, saying it was an election ploy that copied its own vow to ensure the area remains Israeli “forever.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US National Security Adviser John Bolton tour the Jordan Valley, in the West Bank, on June 23, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“The residents of the Jordan Valley are not Netanyahu’s propaganda props. Blue and White has declared that the Jordan Valley will be part of Israel forever. It was Netanyahu who concocted a plan to surrender the Jordan Valley in [peace talks in] 2014. We’re glad Netanyahu came to his senses and adopted Blue and White’s plan for recognition of the Jordan Valley,” the party said in a somewhat confused statement.

The Democratic Camp, on the other hand, was unequivocal.

“Netanyahu’s declaration of annexation of territories is a lawless and dangerous move… by a person who will do anything to hold on to power without any boundaries. It is a wrong move in every sense. Its whole purpose is to thwart negotiations, prevent settlement evacuations, and plunge Israel — politically and defensively — deep into the mud. The only solution for peace with the Palestinians is the two-state solution. This is the only way to secure a sane future for Israel,” Democratic Camp leader Nitzan Horowitz said in a statement.

And perhaps just as Netanyahu may have intended, the statement added that, “Blue and White are afraid to say this because they plan to sit with the Likud in the annexation government. Netanyahu’s extreme and disruptive government must be replaced. This is our duty. Only a vote for the Democratic Camp is a safe vote for the replacement of Likud.”

If Blue and White voters heed Horovitz’s message, Gantz’s party could lose a seat or two worth of voters, helping Likud to emerge as the Knesset biggest party on September 17.

By pandering to the Right and bolstering the Left, Netanyahu may, therefore, may just be able to strengthen his own hand while weakening his rivals to the right and in the center. In less than a week, we’ll know for sure.

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