Is annexation the antidote?

The more precarious Netanyahu's position appears, the more he will court the settlers.

By
September 3, 2019 14:48
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets students as they wave Israeli flags during a ceremo

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets students as they wave Israeli flags during a ceremony opening the school year in the settlement of Elkana on September 1, 2019. . (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s poll numbers drop, watch him turn rightward and throw diplomatic caution to the wind.

The more precarious his position appears, the more he will court the settlers.

It is not a new campaign strategy for a man who has held onto power for the last decade, surviving four elections. In past elections as in this one, he has worked to pull votes from his more right-wing contenders, which this time around is the Yamina Party led by former justice minister Ayelet Shaked.

Among the issues that divide the two parties is addressing the growing need of the government to offer the more than 420,000 residents of Judea and Samaria full rights by applying sovereignty to the settlements where they live, which are now only under Israeli military rule.

Shaked has clearly stated her support for the application of sovereignty, otherwise known as annexation, to Area C of the West Bank, where all the settlements are located.

She has argued that only a strong Yamina Party can sway Netanyahu to apply sovereignty, thereby ensuring that Judea and Samaria become part of Israel’s formal borders.

Netanyahu, who has been loath to speak of sovereignty, has argued that it is premature to worry about post-election strategy before he has even won the election, and to do that he needs all the right-wing votes he can get.

His tenuous hold on power was underscored on Friday when a poll showed that Likud would garner only 30 seats, while the Blue and White Party headed by his chief rival Benny Gantz would net 32.
If such polls are prophetic, then it is highly likely that Gantz, not Netanyahu, would be given the first chance to form a government.

Netanyahu immediately turned to the right-wing voters by conducting a live interview on his Twitter page, stressing that the future of Judea and Samaria was one of the significant reasons why people should vote Likud.

He stressed that he was the best person to protect Israel’s interests – and the interests of Judea and Samaria – when US President Donald Trump puts forward his peace plan, possibly as early as this fall.

“We heard from the White House that after the election – and I expect that it will happen very quickly after the election – the "Deal of the Century" will be put forward,” Netanyahu said, adding that if the Israeli public wants him to lead negotiations involving that peace deal, they have to return him to office.

“Who will lead the negotiations against President Trump on the Deal of the Century that is so fateful for our future?” he asked. “Who will do it?”

Frankly, he added, the Likud’s position in the polls is not good. “If it doesn’t change then there is a real danger that [Gantz and his party co-leader Yair Lapid] will be given the option to form a government,” he said.

On Sunday, Netanyahu traveled to the Elkana settlement – the same community where Shaked had stood 10 days earlier promising sovereignty and the construction of 113,000 new settler homes.

During a ceremony there to mark the first day of school, Netanyahu made his most clear statement to date about sovereignty, promising to apply it to all the settlements.

He followed that remark by reaching out to settler leaders from the Likud Party, working to ensure that they joined his meeting of Likud council and regional council heads held on Monday night so he could personally assure them of his support for their issues.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu is scheduled to make his first visit to Hebron since he took office in 2009. The visit has the appearance of a tacit form of apology, for his decision to divide Hebron in 1997 when he was serving his first term as prime minster.

It is expected that, like in Elkana, he will make some sort of gesture to the settlers.

It is easy to dismiss these gestures as pre-election gimmicks. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon campaigned on his ability to preserve the Gaza settlements, with a slogan comparing one of them, Netzarim, to Tel Aviv: “The fate of Netzarim is the fate of Tel Aviv.” Thereafter upon taking office, Sharon destroyed all 21 of the Gaza settlements.

In the 2015 election, Netanyahu made a comment that sounded as if he no longer supported Palestinian statehood, only to withdraw it after the election.

Israeli prime ministers are defined in part by the US presidents who sit in the White House during their tenure in office.

Sharon faced George Bush, who was initially promoting a road map that called for a freeze on all settlement activity. Sharon was able to trade the Gaza withdrawal for a US pledge that Israel’s final sovereignty borders would not be defined by the 1967 lines.

Netanyahu in 2015 had to contend with Barak Obama, who had a no-tolerance policy for settlement activity and who supported a two-state solution that ran along the pre-1967 lines.

This time around, Netanyahu faces a president who has been tremendously supportive of Israel. Trump has relocated the embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, and has been loath to speak of Palestinian statehood. Trump has also closed the US Consulate General in east Jerusalem that served as a de facto embassy to the Palestinians, as well as closing the PLO representative office in Washington.

The Trump administration has made it clear that it does not believe settlement construction is an obstacle to peace, and has given the appearance of supporting Israel’s continued presence in Judea and Samaria.

When Netanyahu made his 2015 statement doubting Palestinian statehood, there was no chance that a Palestinian state would be created in the near future because talks were frozen and no new plan was in the offing.

Netanyahu’s statement about annexation comes as most of the international community already expects Israel to apply sovereignty to the settlements, if not all of Area C.

It is possible that Netanyahu spoke of applying sovereignty to all of the settlements but not to Area C, because he already knows that he has or can have the support of the Trump administration for this move.

He might have said it as a way of letting both Trump and the Israeli public know what his redline would be once Trump unveils his peace plan. One should recall that Netanyahu is the man who had no problem opposing Obama on Iran, so it is possible that he would stand strong against Trump here as well.

Or maybe Netanyahu did say it as a campaign tactic to ensure his own hold on power, without any intent to hold good on his word should he secure another term in office.

On September 17, the voters will have to decide how much faith or lack of faith they should have in those words.

 


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