The year of magical rethinking: 6 things to know for June 23
Israel media review

The year of magical rethinking: 6 things to know for June 23

The US may be backing off full support for annexation and a more pragmatic Netanyahu could be okay with that, but some still think he can get away with what he wants

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign  Ministry in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem)

1. How much annexation is too much annexation: Another day, another report about what the West Bank annexation gods may bring and how much land Israel will be “allowed” to snag. This time it is Reuters, which reports that the Trump administration is looking at backing a staged process in which Israel would start by declaring sovereignty only over several settlements in the Jerusalem area.

  • Other reports have suggested that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would annex the settlement blocs only, or isolated settlements only, or various other configurations. But what the report does is add to the sense America is getting cold feet over letting Israel have carte blanche over the 30 percent of the West Bank promised to it under the administration’s peace plan.
  • “Ultimately, as the team approaches this thought of annexation, the main thing going through our heads is, ‘Does this in fact help advance the cause of peace?’ And therefore that is what will help drive a lot of the discussion,” an unnamed US official tells Reuters.
  • The issue is ramping up ahead of what several reports describe as a meeting to be held at the White House to decide on the US’s position toward Israeli moves, with well-defined splits between the gung-ho Netanyahu/US Envoy David Friedman camp, and the more cautious approach seemingly backed by Trump adviser Jared Kushner and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
  • The New York Times reports, “According to senior American and Israeli officials, the administration may weigh options including a very limited annexation to win Mr. Gantz’s approval, or letting Mr. Netanyahu go ahead without Mr. Gantz’s agreement, and what the Palestinians could be offered to mollify them.”
  • The paper also reports that the administration could just pull support if it looks like it’s getting too messy or violent or will hurt re-election chances.
    “If Trump doesn’t see a big electoral benefit, he might just say, ‘Too messy, too complicated, I’ll deal with it if I’m re-elected,’” former negotiator and policy wonk David Makovsky tells the paper.
  • Tellingly, the paper notes that Kushner envisioned annexation not as an actionable plan, but as a threat to induce the Palestinians to the table: “Unilateral annexation would remove that leverage.”
  • Yedioth Ahronoth reports that US adviser Avi Berkowitz has held talks with Arab officials on alternative ideas “but the Americans admit that no idea has come up that’s any better than what’s already been proposed.”

2. Annex today, pay never: Army Radio reports that Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who is Gantz’s man, is working behind the scenes to stymie annexation. The report cites an unnamed UN official.

  • Minister In Name Only Tzachi Hanegbi tells the station the report better not be true, as the coalition agreement requires Ashkenazi to go along with it: “The issue of sovereignty is the only one that is exempt from the principle of equal sharing. I can’t believe a minister would go behind the back of the prime minister.”
  • He’s not the only one seemingly prone to magical thinking on the issue and how smoothly it will go down. Israel Hayom, which is pro-annexation and pro-Netanyahu, highlights support for the move among US Republicans and also claims Jordan and Egypt will make do with “statements of condemnation.”
  • The report, citing an unnamed Egyptian source, claims that Mossad head Yossi Cohen and Egyptian spy chief Abbas Kamel came to “a general agreement on the Egyptian reaction if Israel extended sovereignty to the West Bank and Jordan Valley. The Egyptians even managed to convince their Jordanian counterparts to recommend that Jordan’s King Abdullah II settle on a statement of condemnation alone.”
  • Ariel Kahana, a columnist/reporter for the paper, pushes his case that the US needs to give annexation a green light, complaining that it is “stuck in the mud” and only US President Donald Trump can save it, and trying to downplay prophecies of doom.
  • “When it comes to the region, despite what leftist propaganda would have us believe, sovereignty will actually shore up peace. The Arab states will pay lip service [to condemnation], and in the short term will cut back their contact with Israel. But after a while, ties will be renewed, since the interests that brought them closer to the Jewish state in recent years in the first place will continue to guide them.”

3. What’s eating Bibi? In Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer writes that the annexation issue has brought out competing versions of Netanyahu — his cautious, clever and politically pragmatic side, and his more impulsive legacy-seeking side, and it’s unclear which side will win the battle.

  • In the end, though, he predicts that the US will likely be the deciding factor, with the premier probably seeking to avoid clashing with Trump or his possible successor Joe Biden.
  • “Should the pragmatic risk-averse Netanyahu prevail over the legacy-hungry Bibi, [the Americans will] provide him with the best domestic excuse for [pulling back].”
  • But ToI editor David Horovitz writes that since Netanyahu at least seems not to fully fathom the deleterious effects of annexation, the US would do well to make the government realize what a headache it will actually be.
  • “Unilaterally extending Israeli rule into the West Bank — preempting the Trump administration’s declared effort to foster a negotiated accord, with a land grab that turns Israel into the rejectionist party — marks the very opposite of our national interest. It not only damages the way we are perceived around the world, it remakes the way we present and see ourselves,” he writes.

4. Mo’ cases mo’ problems: In the meantime, annexation concerns are seemingly taking a backseat in the domestic news agenda to rising coronavirus case numbers.

  • According to a report Tuesday from the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center, Israel’s infection rate is now increasing by around eight percent per day and the number of active patients is currently doubling every nine days.
  • “Israel has over 5,000 active cases now and the number could be over 10,000 by the end of the month,” writes Channel 12 news.
  • Kan reports that the army, which has had some trouble social distancing soldiers, is not waiting and is already upping restrictions for soldiers, including not allowing them to ride on trains or to go to closed venues for R and R.
  • According to Israel Hayom, Eilat residents are blaming the rise in cases in their resort town on tourists, who the report says do not care about wearing masks or socially distancing. The paper’s reporter notes that while talking to a shopkeeper complaining about people not wearing masks, someone walked in without a mask and waved the shopkeeper off dismissively when asked to put one on.
  • “What can I do? I can’t get into a fight with him,” the shopkeeper is quoted saying.

5. Can you track me now? The Info Center report, the latest after a Saturday study that was quickly disavowed by the Health Ministry, is swiftly overshadowed in the press by an announcement from Netanyahu that the government will consider placing certain areas under lockdown as early as Tuesday, and may quickly push through a law allowing the Shin Bet to digitally monitor sick people.

  • In Yedioth, Alex Fishman writes that the government should heed concerns from the head of the Shin Bet against doing so. However, while other reports indicate Nadav Argaman’s main concern is keeping the Shin Bet’s shadowy messages deep in the shadows and away from the harsh public light of the Knesset, Fishman writes that the Shin Bet is worried about being made into a political tool.
  • “In order to do its work, the Shin Bet needs to remain at the heart of the consensus. There shouldn’t even be a hint of the possibility that it would use this against Israeli citizens,” he writes, seemingly displaying some naivete himself over how the secretive internal intelligence service operates, and how it’s viewed.
  • Army Radio reports that the head of the Doctors Union is urging Netanyahu to forge ahead with the tracking law. They say that “every tool is needed in the fight against high infection numbers alongside bolstering the professional system in the Health Ministry.”

6. No brass tax: The Knesset Finance Committee’s approval of far-reaching retroactive tax benefits worth hundreds of thousands of shekels for Netanyahu is also viewed through a coronavirus lens.

  • The benefits would cover the cost of income tax Netanyahu owes due to upgrades to his vehicle, renovations at his private home in Caesarea, and other expenses dating back to 2009.
  • “Bibi, look me in the eyes. Now look at my friends in the eyes. My friend who opened a cafe a year ago and lost everything. My friend who has been three months without work. Look in the eyes of all the wonderful Israelis who don’t have a pot to piss in. Now look in the mirror … aren’t you ashamed?” tweets Radio103 producer Rabea Bader.
  • “I’ll start with a joke: What’s the connection between tax breaks for the prime minister and an emergency government [formed to fight] against the coronavirus? No idea? You’re not alone, because there is no connection,” Channel 12’s Dafna Liel writes.
  • Kan’s Yoav Karkovsky notes that the move also puts on a stain on Gantz for partnering with Netanyahu, and also getting the same benefits, which may be what the prime minister wanted: “If the holier than thou media is hounding the Netanyahu family, Likud has found a way to shift the hunt as well onto the alternate prime minister.”
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