Does Netanyahu's failure to hit 61-seats place annexation on the rocks?

There has rarely been a time in Israeli history with such political unity of thought on annexation of West Bank settlements.

A view shows the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim in the West Bank February 25, 2020. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
A view shows the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim in the West Bank February 25, 2020.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Israeli voters made one of their strongest statements to date in favor of unilateral annexation, even if they failed to deliver a clear leadership mandate to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
PLO secretary-general Saeb Erekat noted the support for the settlement enterprise in his reaction to the elections. His top comment focused on West Bank settlements rather than on the success or failure of any single candidate.
“It is obvious that settlement, occupation and apartheid have won,” he tweeted.
Monday’s election created a clear bloc of parliamentarians, 98 out of 120 Knesset members, who belong to parties that would support the application of sovereignty over West Bank settlements in some scenario. The two parties who opposed sovereignty are the Joint List, standing at 15 mandates, and Labor-Gesher-Meretz, at seven.
There has rarely been a time in Israeli history with such political unity of thought on the topic.
Five of the pro-sovereignty parties – Likud, Shas, UTJ, Yisrael Beytenu and Yamina – which make up 65 seats, more than a majority of the Knesset members – support the unilateral annexation of all West Bank settlements. That number of parliamentarians is a slight bump from the 63 politicians that same bloc of parties represented prior to Monday.
That clear mandate is symbolic of the extent to which right-wing discourse now dominates the debate on settlements, now that US President Donald Trump has sanctioned the application of sovereignty. Such a move was previously believed to be a diplomatic taboo.
The question now no longer appears to be whether Israelis support sovereignty but whether it is executable or something that will remain only an on-the-books, tantalizing option.
In his victory speech in the early hours of Tuesday morning, Netanyahu repeated his pledge to annex all the West Bank settlements. But the easiest way to ensure sovereignty would have been for the election to deliver him a clear 61-seat government, which did not occur.
Netanyahu exuded confidence when he spoke of this mandate to rule on Wednesday with members of his 58-seat right-wing bloc. He struck one of his famous professor poses, with a Magic Marker and a large white drawing board to describe the right-wing “knockout victory” over the Left, earlier this week.
Not everyone in the audience was convinced.
“But sir,” shouted out one skeptic in the audience, “you don’t have 61.”
It was that failure to hit 61 that worried right-wing sovereignty supporters. So much so, that they attempted to pressure Netanyahu to annex all the settlements prior to the election, even if it meant going against Trump, who wants Netanyahu to wait until later in the year.
Now they are looking at four future scenarios that could impact sovereignty: Does the country head to new elections? Does Netanyahu find additional partners for his right-wing bloc? Does he form a center-right bloc with the Blue and White Party led by Benny Gantz? Does Gantz improbably form a government based on a left-wing bloc?
The worst-case scenario for annexation is the last and is considered to be highly improbable. It involves a government with two seemingly unimaginable political allies, the Arab parties and Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman, for what would be a 63-seat bloc. That bloc would also include the Labor-Gesher-Meretz Party.
That is the scenario, however, that is most in play over the next several months, until Netanyahu forms a government or a fourth election is called.
Sovereignty supporters think that the most probable and possibly easiest scenario for annexation based on Monday’s results would be a fourth election.
In that scenario Netanyahu would apply sovereignty during the fourth elections, even though it could be considered legally problematic in a time of a transitional government. Netanyahu would argue that the voting results – the 65 seats in favor of sovereignty, even if there is no broad agreement to sit together as a government – give him a clear mandate to move forward.
There are those on the Right who believe Netanyahu cannot survive another election cycle without the application of sovereignty, and that his failure to apply it already kept him from hitting 61 seats last Monday.
They also feel that would allow the most favorable terms for those who oppose a Palestinian state or fear that the current US sovereignty map which gives Israel 30% of the West Bank is problematic, and believe that both issues can be best advanced if sovereignty is applied in an election period.
But it is considered highly likely that any government Netanyahu leads and forms could have the power to apply sovereignty, and that he would not allow potential partners, such as possible Labor or Blue and White politicians, to thwart that move.
It is also likely that a Netanyahu-led centrist coalition made up of Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu, or even a Gantz-led coalition of those same three parties, would approve sovereignty.
Gantz, for example, was late to the sovereignty pledge, with a platform for two elections running, both in April and September of 2019, that opposed such unilateral action.
But he actively shifted his platform at the end of January, after meeting in Washington with Trump. He told reporters there that he supported the plan, which allows for Israeli annexation of all the West Bank settlements in the early phase and even spoke of bringing it to the Knesset for a vote.
But he added a number of vague conditions, such as implementing the plan “in tandem” with neighboring states, including King Abdullah of Jordan. Those countries, including Jordan, have opposed the plan, and particularly annexation.
But from the start, his platform on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been carefully crafted and vague enough so that it could fit in with either a right-wing or a left-wing bloc. It’s presumed that this is one element that could be amended in favor of sovereignty, particularly in a Likud-led coalition.
The Trump peace plan and its sanctioning of sovereignty did not come out of a vacuum. It reflects a decade-long shift within the settlement movement and the Israeli public itself regarding the acceptance of annexation of West Bank settlements in some form. This is particularly true given the absence of any Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process.
Political wrangling could temporarily stymie the annexation drive, but is unlikely to thwart its rising electoral wave.