Is Netanyahu hoping for an ‘out’ from annexation?

National Affairs: The longer Israel waits on the fateful move, the more opposition it will face from the international community.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Jordan Valley community of Mevo’ot Yericho in February 2020 (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Jordan Valley community of Mevo’ot Yericho in February 2020
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
When it comes to building in the settlements, Israel – over the years – has perfected the art of death by a thousand cuts.
The approval to build a project in Gush Etzion, for example, or even in one of the Jerusalem neighborhoods over the Green Line is so long and drawn out – the process has so many steps – that by the time the bulldozers actually go out and start moving any earth, there are multiple opportunities for those opposed to scream, shout, condemn and apply pressure.
The good news is that this is how an orderly building process works in a democratic country. There is a process that starts with plans being proposed, submitted in one committee, deposited in another, tenders published and then awarded, until a construction permit is applied for and finally granted.
The bad news is that each step along the way draws fire. By the time construction in projects in east Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria begin, the European Union has already had the opportunity to condemn Israel a half dozen times. Israel’s building processes can keep a small EU staff in Brussels busy for years.
Take Ramat Shlomo as an example. Remember Ramat Shlomo, that Jerusalem neighborhood beyond the city’s 1967 municipal boundaries that is located 10 minutes from the Knesset? In March 2011, during a visit of then-vice president Joe Biden, Israel announced plans to build 1,600 units there.
Even though this was only one early stage of the planning process, it created a furor and a diplomatic crisis with Washington. And this was “only” over the announcement of a plan – not its approval or the issuing of a permit to start building. There were more condemnations and protests as the process moved through the different stages.
Rather than making one declaration at one time and drawing the fire all at once, rather than just pulling off the Band-Aid in one go, Israel’s construction process opens the country up to numerous harsh condemnations for the same project.
The same can now be said about possibly extending Israeli sovereignty to areas beyond the pre-1967 lines.
On January 20 in the Oval Office, US President Donald Trump – when rolling out his “Deal of the Century” – made clear that the US would recognize Israeli sovereignty over some 30% of Judea and Samaria if this was part of a bigger plan that would include the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state that no longer pays terrorists or incites against Israel in the remaining 70% of the territory. That state would also get a massive financial package of some $50 billion, the type of aid that a run-of-the-mill state in Africa, for instance, would die for.
The US expectation at the time was that a committee would begin work and that Israel would be ready to move rapidly. But Israel, because of its endless election cycle, was unable to move rapidly, and – even though a government was set up on Sunday – the coalition agreement stipulates that it will not be able to act on this issue until July 1.
What is sacred about July 1? If Israel really wanted to annex, why not allow the new government to move on it immediately? The reason, one senior political official speculated this week, is because the government is not sure what it wants to do.
“If you are going to do it, just do it,” the official said. “What we are doing now – by turning it into a long, drawn-out, protracted process – is just building up more resistance: in Europe, in parts of America, with the Palestinians, with the Arab states. Netanyahu could have done it quickly, he could do it now. But by lengthening the process, by drawing it out, every day the chances of it happening are becoming less and less.”
And that resistance is mounting. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who welcomed the formation of the new government this week by warning it against annexation, has already issued three statements in his name on the matter (he can’t issue these statements in the name of the EU because there is no consensus among the 27 member states).
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that the agreements with Israel, including the one mandating security cooperation, were now null and void. Jordan’s King Abdullah intimated in an interview with Der Spiegel that annexation might lead to suspension of the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty.
And Biden, now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, reiterated his opposition to any move to extend sovereignty.
“I do not support annexation,” Biden said during a virtual fund-raiser this week, adding that this would “choke off any hope for peace.”
The longer Israel delays, the more this type of pressure mounts, and the more it will impact on the internal Israeli decision-making process.
THESE DELAYS are leading some to question whether – despite his promises – Netanyahu even wants to extend sovereignty over all the settlements and the Jordan Valley, as he promised in his campaign. Perhaps he is looking for an elegant way to continue kicking this particular can down the road, worried about how such a move now would impact on efforts to deepen ties with the Persian Gulf countries; worried what it would do to the invaluable security cooperation with Jordan; concerned what it would mean in terms of the relations with the US in the event of a Biden victory in November.
Asked about the annexation issue by reporters in the Knesset on Sunday after the government swearing-in ceremony, Netanyahu said he “intends to move forward” on the matter.
The big question, however, is to what degree his largest coalition partner – Blue and White – will let him do so.
Under the coalition agreement, Netanyahu and alternate prime minister, Benny Gantz, are to “act together and in a coordinated manner in full agreement with the United States” on this matter, while “pursuing the security and strategic interests of the State of Israel, including the need for maintaining regional stability, maintaining peace agreements and striving for future peace agreements.”
Which means that Blue and White, much less enthralled by annexation than Netanyahu, has a say.
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Blue and White’s No. 2, sent mixed messages on the matter during his maiden speech in his new job on Sunday, saying that on the one hand the Trump plan presents Israel with a “historic opportunity” to shape its borders for coming decades, yet on the other hand it is essential to preserve Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.
Considering Abdullah’s recent statements, those two goals don’t necessarily work together.
One way to solve the apparent contradiction would be to embark on a plan to annex a part of the 30% of the territory it would be able to hold on to under the Trump plan, but not all of it. This would mean annexing some of the territory that under any previous plan was to be incorporated into Israel, such as Ma’aleh Adumim and parts of Gush Etzion – but not the Jordan Valley.
Annexing anything will trigger harsh condemnations and perhaps even Palestinian violence, but if Israel stops short of extending its sovereignty to all of the 30%, including the Jordan Valley, it might prevent a total breakdown of ties with Jordan and other Arab states.
The question, however, is not only what Blue and White will let Netanyahu do, but also whether the way Netanyahu composed the government – leaving Yamina out – might be an indication that he is interested in Blue and White holding him back; like someone about to get into a fistfight but eager that his friends physically prevent him from doing so, shouting – as they restrain him – “Hold me back!”
Of the five governments that Netanyahu has led, this is the first one in which he does not have two parties to his Right.
The Likud was outflanked on the Right in Netanyahu’s first government, from 1996 to 1999, by the now defunct National Religious and Tzomet parties. And in each of his three previous governments since 2009, he always had Bayit Yehudi (or a later configuration) or Yisrael Beytenu pulling him rightward.
This was comfortable for Netanyahu, since he could explain settlement construction to an angry Obama administration by claiming that the parties on the Right were “making me do it,” and that if he froze construction for extended periods he would lose his government.
But now with Yamina on the outside, there is no party inside the coalition pulling him rightward. In fact, now the opposite is true. Now he has a major party in the coalition pulling him the other way. And this may be exactly where Netanyahu wants to be: able to say that he would love to extend sovereignty over as much territory as Trump would allow, but that Blue and White is simply holding him back.