How Bibi’s Friends in the Settlements and in Washington Helped Scuttle His Annexation Move
Israel’s West Bank land grab is on hold for now.
TEL AVIV, Israel—Ever since Benjamin Netanyahu began a record fifth term as prime minister this year, July 1 was supposed to be an auspicious milestone for Israel’s center-right government: the beginning of the annexation of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Instead, the date came and went Wednesday, with most Israelis still in the dark about the scope and timing of the move—and whether it will happen at all.
Netanyahu told Israeli diplomats this week that the government was still working out the details with the Trump administration. But Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s coalition partner (and erstwhile rival), said Israel needs to focus on priorities like beating back a resurgence of COVID-19.
So what’s really causing the delay?
Bolstered by U.S. President Donald Trump’s Israel-friendly peace plan—a blueprint that allows Israel to keep 30 percent of the West Bank—Netanyahu seemed to be barreling ahead in recent weeks, with the potential to upend the relative stability in the West Bank, unravel the Palestinian Authority, and erode Israel’s peace with Jordan.
The Israeli leader faced pushback from the Palestinians, Jordan, the Gulf Arabs, and Israeli ex-security chiefs.
But ultimately the move appears to have been scuttled—for now, anyway—by two of Netanyahu’s usually reliable constituencies: the White House and Jewish settler leaders.
In Washington, senior presidential advisor and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner has been quietly thwarting Netanyahu’s push for annexation out of concern that it could doom the prospects of the peace initiative he helped draft, according to analysts.
At home in Israel, leaders of the settler movement have been doing the same—lobbying against annexation as part of the Trump plan because the peace deal requires Israel to recognize Palestinian sovereignty over the other 70 percent of the West Bank.
“The Trump administration and Netanyahu are no longer in perfect sync. … Kushner has always seen this as a peace plan, and it’s become clear that Bibi sees it more like an annexation plan,” said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The administration is invested in other equities it would like to balance. It would like to keep Gulf Arabs happy. And it understands that there’s fierce criticism of this [annexation] plan, not just in the Arab world but in Europe and in the U.S.”
Netanyahu believes annexation would be an achievement for the history books, redrawing Israel’s border to incorporate hundreds of Jewish settlements that are considered illegal by most of the international community. Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 war with its Arab neighbors and has held the territory under military occupation ever since. Politically, annexation would allow him to draw attention away from his ongoing corruption trial.
Netanyahu also believes that the small window for annexation would close if Trump loses the election in November to presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Biden opposes annexation, and some members of his party have suggested curtailing U.S. military aid if Israel moves ahead with it.
Talk of a unilateral move has already spurred Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to downgrade security coordination with the Israeli government, the Jordanian monarchy to warn of damage to its peace treaty with Israel, and Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates to threaten to freeze normalization steps.
The Trump administration, seeking a less provocative move that will enable Arab allies to continue tentative support for the plan, has conditioned its blessing for an annexation on a consensus between Netanyahu and Gantz, who has taken a more moderate position on the issue. Gantz heads the second-largest party in Netanyahu’s coalition and is slated to replace him as prime minister late next year, according to their coalition deal.
Gantz has said he supports annexation if it’s coordinated with the international community but that he’ll oppose a move that jeopardizes ties with Jordan. In an unusual bit of diplomacy, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has been mediating between Netanyahu and Gantz (Friedman is thought to be more sympathetic to Netanyahu’s position) but has failed to find common ground.
“[The administration] wants to show that this is being done responsibly. They want to minimize the blowback from various parties. That gave a veto back to Gantz, which he didn’t get in the coalition agreement itself,” said Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University. “At the moment, there is not a compatibility among all the parties.”
Despite the delay, the annexation could still go forward at a later date. Netanyahu appears to have the support he needs in parliament to pass an annexation bill even without Gantz. And Shapiro speculated that Trump might give Netanyahu the green light if he believes it would help his reelection campaign.
But for now, other issues have pushed annexation down on the priority list. Israel is experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases after fumbling the reopening of its economy, and most public attention is focused on pocketbook issues. Some experts believe Netanyahu himself is worried about the diplomatic consequences of annexation that Israel might face.
“He doesn’t want the Palestinian issue back as an international issue,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a journalist for the Haaretz newspaper and the author of a biography of Netanyahu. “It’s been pushed off the agenda. Why make it part of the agenda again?”
Netanyahu has come under fire from his political base, religious nationalist ideologues who spearhead the settlers’ umbrella movement, the Yesha Council. They’ve rejected the argument of more pragmatic settlers that the Trump plan renders a Palestinian state a distant and highly unlikely probability. According to the deal, Palestinians must fulfill a long list of preconditions before receiving full sovereignty over what would be a swiss cheese statelet. Palestinian leaders have rejected the plan.
“It’s not a debate about how much to grant the Palestinians but on the very principle that the Palestinians have a right to establish a state in Judea and Samaria,” said Israel Harel, one of the founders of the settlement movement and a former Yesha Council chief, invoking a biblical term for the West Bank that is in common usage among Israelis.
Harel acknowledged that most settlers might be inclined to go along with annexation but said the leadership needed to stand on principle.
“This is a spiritual movement. The leaders of Yesha are first ideological, then practical. Agreeing there should be another entity on this land other than a Jewish state is like agreeing to share one’s wife.”
Netanyahu should have been able to wrangle a deal that doesn’t include a Palestinian state, given Trump’s aversion to policy nitty-gritty and Kushner’s relative inexperience, Harel said.
Shira Efron, a fellow at INSS, said that for ideologues like Harel, the status quo is preferable to the Trump deal.
“The settler leadership thinks, ‘We can’t take our chances and give in on the idea of the establishment of a Palestinian state. The status quo and situation on the ground serve us better for now,’” she said.
The internal tension among Netanyahu’s base is highlighted by the dissonance in the prime minister’s messages to both constituencies. In English, he told U.S. evangelicals this week that annexation will help bring about a “realistic” two-state solution. But his political surrogates in Israel vow to oppose a Palestinian state.
“You can’t have diplomats in Washington saying this about a more, you know, realistic Palestinian state and then have people in Israel saying [there will] never be a Palestinian state,” Makovsky said. “Both cannot be true.”