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Settlers hail agreement; Palestinians protest

Unity deal allows PM to begin advancing West Bank annexation from July 1

Move must be carried out in full cooperation with US, which has all but given its blessing already; can be advanced through cabinet or Knesset, where right enjoys clear majority

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plants an olive tree at the Netiv Ha'avot neighborhood in the Elazar settlement in the West Bank, on January 28, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plants an olive tree at the Netiv Ha'avot neighborhood in the Elazar settlement in the West Bank, on January 28, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

The unity government agreement inked on Monday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz will allow Israel to initiate legislation to annex large parts of the West Bank starting in the beginning of July.

For its first six months, the “emergency national unity government”  will focus on tackling the coronavirus pandemic and will not pass major legislation that does not relate to the crisis. One stated exception to that rule, however, is annexation.

According to clause 29 of the deal, Netanyahu “will be able to bring the agreement reached with the US on the application of sovereignty [in the West Bank]… for the approval of the cabinet and/or the Knesset starting July 1, 2020.”

Setting out two legislative paths to enact annexation, the deal appears to provide Netanyahu with an alternative route if he fails to gain a majority for annexation in the cabinet, where some half of the ministers will be Blue and White members. It is more likely to pass in the Knesset given that the right-wing Likud, Yamina, Yisrael Beytenu, United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, which all have voiced support for annexation, hold a majority there.

If Netanyahu chooses to bring the proposal before the Knesset, he will be able to do so on his own or through another MK, provided that the lawmaker is from the Likud party, the agreement stipulates, in an apparent effort to prevent a more hardline lawmaker from advancing legislation that is not coordinated with the Likud and Blue and White parties.

This lawmaker will be obligated to ensure that the legislation is “identical to the version placed before the cabinet”

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)

“The law will be passed as quickly as possible… and will not be disrupted or delayed by the chairs of either the House or the Foreign Affairs and Defense committees,” the agreement reads.

Moreover, the deal stipulates that Netanyahu and Gantz will act in “full agreement with the US, including on the issue of [West Bank] maps, and in dialogue with the international community.”

Washington has largely given its blessing to Israel’s annexation efforts, saying it would rescind its veto once a government has been formed and a joint US-Israel mapping team has completed its efforts to determine exactly which West Bank land Israel will be allowed annex. Their work has been hindered due to the coronavirus, though the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office told the Makor Rishon newspaper that the pandemic has not forced a total cessation of efforts.

Still, some analysts speculate that Washington may be more hesitant to allow such a far-reaching move to go forward just months before the November presidential election.

Gantz and Netanyahu will advance the Trump peace plan, “while pursuing the security and strategic interests, maintaining regional stability, [maintaining existing] peace agreements and striving for future ones,” the agreement further reads.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sign their unity government agreement on April 20, 2020. (courtesy)

The inclusion of a clause all but ensuring annexation marks a significant victory for Netanyahu, who in the year’s past three election campaigns promised voters that he would impose Israeli sovereignty over all settlements, as well as over the Jordan Valley, if reelected premier.

Gantz, meanwhile, has waffled on the issue throughout the past year. While he has long opposed unilateral measures aimed at ending the conflict, he came out in support of Jordan Valley annexation in January, albeit conditioning such a move on coordination with the international community — a perplexing condition, given the vast majority of countries overwhelmingly oppose annexations in the West Bank. Gantz then went on to welcome the Trump peace plan, which envisioned Israel annexing every single settlement in addition to the Jordan Valley.

When European diplomats approached the Blue and White leader’s office last week to warn him against agreeing to a unity government that would advance annexation, Gantz’s adviser Melody Sucharewicz responded by saying that Blue and White had been forced to compromise on the annexation issue, but that he hopes to still be able to influence its implementation moving forward, Channel 13 reported.

A joint Likud-Blue and White statement summarizing the agreement said vaguely that annexation legislation would only be advanced “following due process.”

Briefing reporters on what he referred to as his party’s “achievements” in the unity deal, a Blue and White official said, “The Trump plan will be promoted responsibly while maintaining the strategic assets of the State of Israel and stability in the region.”

President Donald Trump speaks during an event with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the East Room of the White House in Washington, to announce the Trump administration’s much-anticipated plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Netanyahu spoke with all the leaders of his right-wing religious bloc of parties after signing the unity deal, his spokesman said in a statement Monday evening.

“The prime minister said that the establishment of a unity government in the face of the coronavirus pandemic is a national imperative,” the statement said. “The prime minister pledged that he will continue to uphold the principles of the national camp and the right-wing bloc within the unity government.”

Settler leaders congratulated the prime minister on reaching the unity deal, and expressing optimism over its inclusion of a commitment to advance annexation plans in the coming months. However, they refrained from stating that the measure is a done deal and vowed to work with Netanyahu in order to ensure that he follows through on his pre-election promise.

“I congratulate the prime minister and MK Benny Gantz on reaching an agreement. The [two] most important things [going forward are] treatment of the coronavirus and [Israeli] sovereignty [over the West Bank]. These are two strategic and essential things for the State of Israel,” Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan said in a statement.

“We will work with the government, in partnership and, when necessary, in a forceful manner, in order to advance sovereignty in the coming period and to expand construction and development in Judea and Samaria,” he added, referring to the West Ban by its biblical name.

Har Hebron Regional Council chairman Yochai Damri similarly praised the deal and said he was glad the sides had reached an agreement “ensuring that Judea and Samaria are integral parts of the Land of Israel.” However, he warned that “unity governments [of the past] were [known to be] paralysis governments” and expressed hope that that won’t turn out to be an apt characterization of the incoming coalition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r) with settler leader Yossi Dagan at event commemorating 50 years of settlement in the West Bank, August 28, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel/File)

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said in a statement that the “formation of the Israeli annexation government means ending the two-state solution and the dismantling of the rights of the people of Palestine as established under international law and resolutions.

“We are behind [PA] President Mahmoud Abbas in the position he will announce regarding an expected Israeli declaration of annexation that will take us to a new direction in the struggle with the occupation,” Shtayyeh added.

Senior Palestine Liberation Organization official Saeb Erekat issued a statement saying that any government advancing annexation of parts of the West Bank was a danger to the entire world.

“A government coalition based on a commitment to annex more occupied Palestinian territory is a threat to a rules-based world order in general, but to peace, security and stability in the Middle East in particular,” he said.

“Annexation means the end of any possibility for a negotiated solution,” Erekat added, calling on the international community to hold Israel’s incoming government accountable “and to demand full implementation of its obligations under international law and signed agreements.”

The Peace Now settlement watchdog said, “We are being told tonight about the establishment of a ‘national emergency government,’ yet somehow annexation in the West Bank has found its way into its top priorities.

“Annexation costs will be much higher than the debilitating costs of the COVID-19 crisis. Most of all, annexing territories without giving full citizenship rights to the millions of Palestinians who would be left in nominally autonomous enclaves under Israeli rule would spell an end to Israel’s democracy,” the group added.

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