With annexation gaffe, Netanyahu blunders into first real crisis with Trump

With annexation gaffe, Netanyahu blunders into first real crisis with Trump

Not since blaming the mufti for the Holocaust has Netanyahu made such easily refutable claims, and the rare misstep suggests he may be letting legal woes get the best of him

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House, on February 15, 2017, in Washington, DC.  (AFP/Mandel Ngan)
US President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House, on February 15, 2017, in Washington, DC. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — an old fox if Israeli politics ever had one — made a grave beginner’s mistake.

He had sought to put off a bill calling for Israel to annex the West Bank, so as not to antagonize the US administration. But the awkward way in which he tried to sell the move to his right-wing base ended up infuriating the White House, triggering what looked to be the first bona fide crisis between Jerusalem and Washington since Donald Trump became president.

Netanyahu’s surprising blunder is likely the result of two separate problems he faces: mounting political pressure from his pro-settlement constituency, and the sword of Damocles that is the expected police recommendation that he be indicted on two counts of corruption. The more he is pushed into a corner by the corruption probes, the more he may seek to court the pro-settlement crowd to rally around him.

At the weekly meeting of his Likud faction, Netanyahu tried to explain why he is not eager to advance the so-called Sovereignty Bill, proposed by first-time legislators Yoav Kisch (Likud) and Bezalel Smotrich (Jewish Home). Such a drastic step, he argued, had to be coordinated with the Trump administration.

“I can tell you that for a while now I’ve been talking about it with the Americans,” Netanyahu told the lawmakers at the Knesset.

“I’m guided by two principles in this issue… optimal coordination with the Americans, whose relationship with us is a strategic asset for Israel and the settlement movement; and the fact that it must be a government initiative rather than a private one because it would be a historic move,” he added.

In itself, this was a dramatic statement. For the first time since he became prime minister, Netanyahu publicly expressed support for annexing all or parts of the West Bank (although he did not specify exactly where he would want to apply Israeli sovereignty; the Smotrich-Kisch bill calls for annexing only the settlements themselves, but some senior Likud members want to annex the entire West Bank).

Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich (R) speaks with Likud’s Yoav Kisch during a plenary session in the Knesset, November 13, 2017.)

Unsurprisingly, hawks applauded Netanyahu’s statement: Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, for instance, celebrated his “important move, which could lead to a historic change.”

Doves, naturally, were appalled. “Such a radical step would be the end of the Jewish people’s effort to establish Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Instead, it would create a permanent one-state nightmare of escalating conflict and injustice,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the American leftist J-Street organization.

The Palestinians, too, protested vehemently.

Others immediately realized that something was fishy. After all, Netanyahu has over the years made many efforts to obstruct the different annexation bills that have been brought to the Knesset. He continued doing so even after Trump’s election in November 2016, paying a high political price.

Also, if Netanyahu had been discussing a possible annexation of the West Bank “for a while now,” why was he only mentioning it today?

And yet, most people took the prime minister at his word. Few people imagined he would confidently make a public statement about such a sensitive a matter that wasn’t precisely true.

But Netanyahu never seriously discussed Israel annexing anything, the White House soon claimed, and flabbergasted administration officials angrily demanded that Netanyahu retract the statement.

At 6:40 p.m. Israel time, a senior Israeli diplomatic official, who asked to remain unnamed, sent reporters a message clarifying that Netanyahu “did not present the administration with specific annexation proposals,” and that, in any event, the US did not support any of them, since it wants to advance Trump’s yet-unpublished peace plan.

Israel has merely updated the US on the different proposals MKs make occasionally, this official noted, adding that the White House had made it unequivocally clear that it clings to the president’s plan, which, it now emerges, plainly does not entail annexation.

A little over an hour later, White House spokesman Josh Raffel sent out a statement unprecedented in its bluntness: “Reports that the United States discussed with Israel an annexation plan for the West Bank are false. The United States and Israel have never discussed such a proposal, and the president’s focus remains squarely on his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.”

Raffel, who never speaks about Israeli-Palestinian matters on the record, could have been even more blunt, but instead opted to show a little mercy with regard to Netanyahu. It was not “reports” that was denying, but a statement by Netanyahu himself, who had said in public that the US and Israel had discussed annexation. Yet this minor act of compassion could not hide the fact that the White House was fuming.

The Americans were apparently not satisfied with the Israeli official’s anonymous retraction. And so, a few minutes later, Netanyahu’s office was forced to issue a formal statement essentially contradicting the assertion he had made a few hours earlier in the Knesset.

Not since claiming that Adolf Hitler “didn’t want to exterminate the Jews,” but was persuaded to do so by the Palestinian mufti, has Netanyahu allowed himself such a careless slip-up.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset on February 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

His annexation claim was inevitably going to be scrutinized and ultimately found to be false. Did Netanyahu not think that someone would ask the White House whether Israel really brought up such proposals?

Everyone makes mistakes, but as opposed to Netanyahu’s unfortunate mufti speech, in October 2015, Monday’s gaffe is not chiefly of interest to history buffs, but has the potential to damage Israel’s relations with its most important ally.

After eight tense years during which Barack Obama sat in the White House, Netanyahu had been exceedingly careful not to say or do anything that could anger the new president. Indeed, he routinely cited the need to coordinate with the US, as he blocked all annexation bids raised in the Knesset.

On Monday, he violated his own rule, for no good reason.

Netanyahu’s faux pas is particularly puzzling as it comes only one day after his favorite newspaper Israel Hayom published an interview with Trump, in which the president said he was not quite sure whether Israel is interested in peace. In the interview, Trump also said that Israel’s West Bank settlement enterprise “very much complicates and always have complicated making peace, so I think Israel has to be very careful with the settlements.”

The most plausible explanation for Netanyahu’s misstep is that the political pressure and the legal woes he faces got the better of him.

Boosted by Trump’s recent recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and various anti-Palestinian statements, his right-wing base has been pushing harder and harder for annexation. Even President Reuven Rivlin earlier on Wednesday dropped his usual statesmanship and expressed conditional support for an Israeli annexation of the West Bank.

With police expected in the coming days to recommend that Netanyahu be indicted, the prime minister’s desire to please his political base appears to have triumphed over any other considerations he might have had when he thought of what to say at Monday’s Likud faction.

So rather than keep his cool and stonewall yet another annexation bid without much explanation, as he has done many times in the past, Netanyahu allowed himself to say some things that delighted his constituency, but greatly irritated the world’s only superpower.

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