With softening of US settlement policy, is annexation train leaving the station?

With Israeli towns in West Bank no longer illegal in the eyes of superpower, it’s easier for the right to advance sovereignty plans and harder for the left to come out against them

Jacob Magid

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)

On the face of it, the Trump administration’s Monday announcement that it no longer deems Israeli settlements to be illegal gave supporters of West Bank annexation much to celebrate.

It would by no means be a stretch to assume that by repudiating a 1978 State Department legal opinion viewing civilian settlements in occupied territories as “inconsistent with international law,” Washington was, in effect, giving a nod to the application of full Israeli sovereignty beyond the Green Line.

Because if the settlements aren’t illegal in the eyes of the world’s largest superpower, why should Israel treat those communities as anything less, supporters of Israeli presence in the West Bank concluded.

Former justice minister and New Right No. 2 Ayelet Shaked was among the first to draw this conclusion. “Now is the time to apply our sovereignty to these communities,” she tweeted minutes after the announcement was made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “The Jewish People have the legal and moral right to live in their ancient homeland.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, November 18, 2019. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Shaked was joined by several other right-wing lawmakers including Likud MK Sharren Haskel, who announced that she would be introducing her legislation to annex the Jordan Valley next week after receiving the go-ahead from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Days before the September election, the premier vowed to carry out the move, but conditioned its fulfillment on his victory, which has yet to come about given the ongoing political deadlock.

Nevertheless, if Haskel has her way, annexation legislation will move forward with or without the swearing-in of a new government.

Consequently, those who oppose such efforts may be expected to combat them earlier than expected, but for the first time, it would be without official US policy on their side.

Complications on the left

To be clear, Pompeo did not come out in favor of annexation on Monday. And ahead of the Israel’s September election, US officials called on Jerusalem to refrain from applying Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank while it was preparing to unveil its peace plan.

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)

But such requests have not been heard in recent weeks as speculation has grown that the US plan will be shelved entirely. As a result, one left-wing MK who spoke on the condition of anonymity admitted that Pompeo’s announcement will make it more difficult for him to come out against annexation.

“It doesn’t make us look very good when we oppose something that even the US government doesn’t seem to have a problem with,” the MK said.

To Labor MK Omer Barlev, however, the announcement did not change his approach on the issue.

“No president abroad will decide for us what our policy will be. This is an internal issue only we Israelis can decide,” he told The Times of Israel.

Former Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova took the approach a step further, saying that those who believe the two-state solution is the only way to ensure Israel will remain a Jewish and democratic state have no other choice but to oppose annexation efforts, regardless of where the Trump administration stands on the matter.

The Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba is pictured near the West Bank city of Hebron on November 19, 2019. (Hazem Bader/AFP)

“Of course this move emboldens the settler lobby and the pro-settler wing of the Likud, but it cannot change the opposition’s approach to the issue,” said Svetlova.

Hagit Ofran from the Peace Now settlement watchdog argued that annexation is already taking place on the ground. “The legislation that is now being discussed would be largely symbolic,” she explained. “Those living beyond the Green Line would not wake up the next morning and notice anything different because we have been living in a one state reality for over 52 years in which Israel rules over the majority of the West Bank.”

Svetlova insisted that it was still too early to determine where annexation plans were heading, so long as the make-up of the next government has not been determined.

But even the party that positioned itself as the alternative to Likud, Blue and White, signaled it has no problem with Israel annexing at least parts of the West Bank.

An official in the centrist alliance headed by former army chief Benny Gantz told The Times of Israel that his party promised New Right leader Naftali Bennett and Jewish Home chairman Rafi Peretz that they would include the annexation of the Jordan Valley in the foundational principals of the government if the right-wing leaders agreed to join them.

Blue and White Knesset members Yoaz Hendel (L) and Zvi Hauser seen at the Knesset Plenary Hall, ahead of the opening Knesset session of the new government on April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Bennett and Peretz ultimately refused, but the official said the offer proves that Blue and White sees the Jordan Valley as a full part of Israel.

“This was not something that they [Bennett and Peretz] asked for. We came to them with this proposal,” he said.

For her part, Svetlova pointed out that not all members of Blue and White hold the same ideological stance as the party’s right-wing Telem flank led by Moshe Ya’alon. The former MK speculated that the offer could have been nothing more than an empty promise necessary for forming a coalition.

Does Netanyahu mean it?

But skepticism that the US settlement announcement would lead to annexation was also heard on the right.

Former Yesha settlement umbrella council chairman Israel Harel asserted that even if Netanyahu remains at the helm, there is no reason to assume that Pompeo’s announcement will make it any more likely that he will follow through with his annexation pledge.

“Even before Pompeo’s declaration, there was no one preventing Bibi from granting building tens of thousands of building permits [in the settlements], but he didn’t do this,” said Harel. “Even in Jerusalem, and in [the East Jerusalem neighborhood of] Givat Hamatos, he has stopped construction in recent years.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tours the Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank on November 19, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“Maybe he meant to say [that he will annex the Jordan Valley], but as usual with him, he does not mean to actually carry it out,” the former settler leader said, citing past promises by Netanyahu to enact Israeli sovereignty in Ma’ale Adumim and to demolish the Bedouin hamlet of Khan al-Ahmar, which he has yet to follow through.

The left-wing MK who spoke on the condition of anonymity also acknowledged that Netanyahu could have long-ago moved forward with plans to annex parts of the the West Bank, with limited blow-back from the Trump administration. But in the wake of Monday’s US announcement, he noted, the next prime minister, whoever it will be, now “has one less excuse for not doing so.”

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