The Four Key Players in Israel’s Annexation Debate

By | May 18, 2020
Israel, Latest
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1. With Israeli government sworn in, annexation clock is ticking

After 510 days, three elections, and months of stalemate, Israel’s political crisis has come to an end with the swearing-in of Netanyahu’s fifth government. Dubbed as a “national emergency coalition,” aimed at rescuing Israel from the coronavirus crisis, the new government will feature Netanyahu as prime minister for the first 18 months, after which he is expected to rotate with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, currently serving as defense minister and vice prime minister.

It is a super-sized behemoth of a government, with ridiculously named new ministries made up at the last minute to satisfy the appetite of coalition-members seeking cabinet positions (yes, Israel now has a minister for water resources, a minister for strengthening communities, and a minister for social equality). But, jokes aside, it may also be the government that takes the most dramatic step in decades toward shaping the nation’s future and its relationship with the Palestinians.

The new government, Israel’s 35th, has pledged to annex the Jordan Valley and Jewish settlements in the West Bank to Israel. “It’s time to apply the Israeli law and write another glorious chapter in the history of Zionism,” Netanyahu told the Israeli Knesset on Sunday, after swearing in his government.

In many senses, this is a symbolic move, since Israel already applies its laws in various ways over the Jewish settlers in the West Bank. But in geopolitical terms, it could be a watershed moment, one that marks the point where Israel officially shifted from viewing the territories’ future as being up for negotiations, to making clear that large swaths of the land meant to serve as the future Palestinian state are no longer in play.

Palestinians, as well as many in the Arab world, in Europe and elsewhere, have warned that annexation would spell the end of the two-state solution and could ignite another round of violence. Israelis on the left have also argued that annexing parts of the territories would weaken Israel’s democracy. Netanyahu, his partners and what seems to be a majority of Israelis, believe it is a necessary move that codifies a situation that is already taking place on the ground.

According to the timetable set by Netanyahu, the annexation should be announced within the next few months and could move forward as soon as early July.

What are the chances of this dramatic step actually taking place? Is this an inevitable result of the new government formed or yet another election-promise bound to be discarded as campaign rhetoric makes way to reality?

It all depends on four key players, their motivation, and their ability to influence the course of events.

2. Netanyahu: legacy or survival?

The Israeli prime minister’s motivation to go forward with the move is multifold.

Politically, it would neutralize any opposition from the parties to his right, and perhaps even put an end to their existence. After all, what right-wing politician could ever promise more than what Bibi is about to deliver–annexation, the settlers’ dream come true.

Beyond politics, it would also cement Netanyahu’s legacy as the leader who changed Israel’s borders forever and set in motion a process realizing the vision of “greater Israel” from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. By doing so, he would also be eliminating the prospect of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

At 70, with only a year-and-half to serve as prime minister and a trial on corruption charges about to start, Netanyahu may be worried more about his place in history than about the daily chore of running the country.

But Netanyahu has demonstrated in the past that at the crossroads of ideology and pragmatism, he always takes the pragmatic route.

Avoiding annexation, or delaying it, would make his life much easier.

Jordan has issued a stark warning about the future of its relations with Israel if Netanyahu moves to annex the territories; Sunni Gulf states, which have been secretly, and not-so-secretly, forging ties with Israel, are expected to take a step back if Netanyahu declares annexation; the risk of violence in the West Bank will increase; the Europeans will give him a hard time, as will U.S. Democrats and even some in the Trump administration.

Netanyahu must be asking himself now–is annexation worth the headache?

3. Gantz: An independent voice or Bibi’s sidekick?

It’s been a long year-and-half for Benny Gantz: entering politics after a lifelong career in the military, positioning himself as an alternative to Netanyahu, battling three tough elections which ended in a tie, and being tarred and feathered by Israel’s media and many of his own voters, for eventually caving in to Netanyahu.

Annexation will face Gantz with a moment of truth.

A security-minded hawkish centrist, Gantz does not necessarily oppose the idea of annexation, but he believes it should be done in the context of negotiations with the Palestinians. In practical terms, this is the difference between annexing now or waiting decades.

Will he block Netanyahu’s attempt to go ahead with the move right now?

First, Gantz doesn’t really have the political power to stop Bibi. It’s hard to see him breaking the coalition over this issue, and even if he does, Netanyahu can survive it.

Also, if there is anything these past 18 months taught us about Gantz, it is that he is not the one to seek confrontation or to fight it out until the end. There is no good reason to believe that the same Gantz who grew tired of battling Bibi on the electoral front, would fight it out when it comes to a policy issue.

But this may also be his redeeming moment.

If Gantz emerges as the person who steered Israel away from annexation (not necessarily through a political showdown, but rather by using his power as a moderate, security-minded well-respected national security figure) he could go down as the hero of Israel’s political center, and as a potential future leader.

4. Pompeo: stuck in the middle

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a quick visit to Israel last week, his first trip abroad since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

In his talks, and in comments by State Department officials afterward, it was clear that Pompeo was sending Israel a polite, yet clear, warning signal, against immediate annexation.

It is a tricky situation for Pompeo, who is tasked with managing the administration’s policy on the issue, even though he was not a major player in the forming of Trump’s Middle East peace plan.

On the one hand, Pompeo is there to advance the “deal of the century” which clearly provides Israel with a path to annexation. This is what Trump, Kushner, and their supporters and donors would like to see happen.

At the same time, he’s also America’s top diplomat, and as such Pompeo worries about the impact of annexation on the region and America’s interests. Wearing this diplomatic hat, Pompeo understands that taking unilateral steps in the West Bank could be great for the political base, but an unnecessary distraction in the global arena.

His message to Netanyahu was subtle: America still stands behind its promise to support Israeli annexation, but the question is when. Taking it on as the first cause of the new government, straight out of the gates, would seem uncalculated and rushed. On the other hand, raising the issue after reaching out to Palestinians and Arab leaders and giving them time to express their opposition—that could actually work.

5. Friedman: ambassador of annexation affairs

The last key player is, somewhat surprisingly, David Friedman, America’s ambassador to Israel.

Friedman, the mastermind behind Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, is a strong proponent of Israeli annexation, and while his boss, Pompeo, was trying his best to avoid making any clear statement on the issue, Friedman hasn’t been shy.

“We are not declaring sovereignty, but rather Israel, and then we are ready to recognize it,” Friedman said in an interview with Israel Hayom. He added that once the mapping process, already underway, is completed and after Israel agrees to freeze settlement expansion in areas designated in the Trump plan, it can move ahead with the annexation, and can expect America’s blessing. “We’ll recognize Israel’s sovereignty in areas that according to the plan will be a part of it.” Friedman also noted that another condition, namely agreeing to negotiate with the Palestinians based on Trump’s plan, has already been met by Netanyahu.

With Friedman and Netanyahu agreeing that immediate annexation is possible, and with Pompeo and Gantz preferring a slower and more cautious approach, the key, at the end of the day, remains in the hands of President Trump.

If he intervenes against immediate annexation, Netanyahu will abide. If he stays on the sidelines, Netanyahu will probably see it as a green light to move forward. That is, assuming Trump, in the midst of a pandemic and an economic crisis of historic magnitude, not to mention the rapidly approaching elections, even has the bandwidth to deal with whether or not Israel takes over some land in a faraway country.

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