Netanyahu hoped to use annexation to gain votes for March 2 elections

Does the US peace deal have a chance now that hopes of annexation before the March 2 election have been dashed?

President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on January 28 (photo credit: REUTERS)
President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on January 28
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had hoped that the unveiling of the US’s Middle East peace plan would be his Trump card ahead of the March 2 election, energizing his base and presenting the electorate with an unprecedented diplomatic coup.
Immediately after the White House ceremony at on January 28, where he stood side by side with US President Donald Trump as he revealed details of the far-reaching plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu promised that the following week he would bring to the cabinet a proposal to annex the Jordan Valley and extend Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements.
Such a move would have been a major milestone, marking the first time since the 1967 Six Day War that Israel had formally annexed areas of the West Bank beyond east Jerusalem.
But Washington quickly put the brakes on the fast-track annexation, making it clear that any such move would need a couple of months’ preparation – including the drawing up of detailed maps (see the map on page 11) – to be presided over by a joint American-Israeli committee. Any move to extend sovereignty would have to wait until after the election.
“We need an Israeli government in place to move forward,” clarified Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, one of the main architects of the peace plan.
Netanyahu was forced to delay the annexation plan, blaming the embarrassing U-turn on a “misunderstanding” with the Americans over the timing of such a move. Officials in Jerusalem also indicated that US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman had led Jerusalem to believe that an immediate annexation would be given the green light from Washington.
Despite the setback, Netanyahu still portrayed the peace deal as a significant achievement. “We’ll receive American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and all of the communities in Judea and Samaria. That is a tremendous achievement. I worked on that for years. This is a historic reversal. Up until now the Palestinians received and we gave. From now on they’re giving and we’re receiving.”
He said Israel was already in the process of mapping the territory that according to the Trump plan will be part of Israel.
“This won’t take a lot of time and we’ll complete this. Don’t be mistaken, the Americans will go along with this, President Trump will go along with this,” he told a Likud rally in Ma’ale Adumim.
The leadership of the settlers’ camp, who had greeted the Deal of the Century in almost messianic terms, together with the entire right-wing camp, felt the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was slipping away.
The Yesha settlers’ council threatened to close Likud election campaign offices in settlements if there was no annexation before the March vote.
“Let me be clear, whatever is delayed until after the elections will never happen and will remain outside for another 50 years,” said Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yamina party. “If we postpone or reduce the scope of applying sovereignty, then the opportunity of the century will turn into the bungle of the century.”
The Trump plan also contained a bitter pill for the settlers and many on the Right – the creation of an independent Palestinian state. However, most were willing, reluctantly, to swallow this pill believing the Palestinians would never meet the conditions for statehood set out in the peace plan, while Israel could immediately act on annexing the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea, which makes up some 30 percent of the entire West Bank.
The US plan calls for negotiations for the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state in 70% of the West Bank, but only after the Palestinians meet a number of conditions: recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, ending incitement against Israel, stopping payments to jailed terrorists, halting legal proceedings against Israel in the International Criminal Court, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, relinquishing the right of return for Palestinian refugees and disarming the armed groups in Gaza.
The peace deal mentions east Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state but Israel will have sovereignty over almost the entire city, including the Old City, the adjoining Holy Basin and the commercial hub of the Palestinian area of the city. The Palestinians are left with only a few outlying Arab neighborhoods beyond the West Bank separation barrier (but still within the Jerusalem municipality boundary) such as Abu Dis, parts of Shuafat and the al-Aqab village.
“It is impossible for any Palestinian, Arab, Muslim or Christian child to accept a Palestinian state without Jerusalem as its capital,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said. “We say a thousand times, ‘no, no, no.’ We rejected this deal from the start and our stance was correct. Your conspiracy won’t succeed.”
Despite the Palestinian opposition, Kushner described the plan as the last chance for a viable Palestinian state because of the rate of expansion of Israeli settlements.
“Right now, it’s very, very difficult to have a contiguous state where you can drive from the top to the bottom,” Abbas said. “If you look at the rate of expansion of Israeli settlements and if you look at the aspirations of the Palestinian people you’re about to get to a crossroad where you almost can’t come back.”
Josep Borrell, the European Union foreign affairs chief, warned that any steps that Israel might take toward annexing parts of the West Bank would not “pass unchallenged.”
Borrell initially had hoped to issue a statement in the name of all 27 EU member states, but Israeli diplomatic efforts successfully persuaded a number of  countries – including the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania – to refuse to be party to this initiative, forcing Borrell to issue a statement in his own name only.
A meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo backed the Palestinian rejection of the plan. Addressing the gathering, Abbas threatened to sever security cooperation with Israel and the United States. The Arab League rejected Trump’s plan, saying in a communiqué it would not lead to a just peace and adding it will not cooperate with the United States to execute the plan.
The ministers affirmed the Palestinian right to create a future state based on the land captured by Israel in 1967.
Despite the Arab League opposition, ambassadors from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman had attended the unveiling ceremony in Washington, and Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco said they appreciated Trump’s efforts and called for renewed negotiations.
One of the most controversial elements of the peace plan was the proposal to redraw the West Bank border in order to transfer control of the Galilee Triangle – a cluster of 14 towns and villages where some 300,000 Arab-Israelis live – from Israel to a future Palestinian state.
Residents of the Triangle strongly oppose the idea, which was reportedly proposed by Israel to the Americans, seeing it as further proof that they are viewed as second-class citizens. Ayman Odeh, head of the predominantly Arab Joint List, defiantly announced, “No one will deprive us of citizenship in the homeland where we were born.”
The reaction of the Israeli public to both the peace plan and the question of annexation was mixed.
Some 35% of respondents to one survey said Israel should accept the peace deal in full, 31% said Israel should reject it and the remaining 34% said they either did not know or had no opinion on the matter.
On the questions of whether Israel should annex the Jordan Valley and the large settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria, and if so, whether it should be done before or after the March vote, 32% supported annexation prior to the elections, 23% supported annexation but only after the election, 20% said they do not support the move regardless of when it might take place, and 25% said they either did not know or had no opinion on the matter.
Despite the confusion around the annexation question, the publication of the peace plan did benefit Netanyahu, at least initially, by keeping the media focus away from his impending corruption trial where he will face charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
On the same day the Deal of the Century was unveiled, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit formally indicted Netanyahu a few hours after the prime minister had withdrawn his request for Knesset immunity, realizing the bid would be rejected.
The on/off annexation question appears to have made little impact on voting intentions ahead of the March election – Israel’s third vote within a year. Polls in early February indicated another stalemate between the two blocs with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu holding the balance of power.
A Maariv poll projected a lead for Blue and White led by Benny Gantz over Netanyahu’s Likud, 36 to 33, and a slight advantage for the Center-Left-Joint List bloc (57 seats) over the right-wing bloc (56 seats), while Yisrael Beytenu receives seven seats.
Liberman has vowed that Israel will not head into a fourth consecutive election and that the upcoming elections in March will be “conclusive.” However, he failed to reveal how he would prevent such a scenario.
For his part, Gantz welcomed the US plan after meeting the president at the White House on January 27. “The Trump administration’s peace plan is a significant and historic milestone indeed,” Gantz said. “Immediately after the elections, I will work toward implementing it from within a stable, functioning Israeli government, in tandem with other countries in our region.”
Initial Palestinian reaction on the street to the Deal of the Century was relatively mild and limited to small-scale demonstrations, but in early February a spate of attacks in the West Bank and Jerusalem prompted fears in Israel that the situation was spiraling out of control. The IDF sent reinforcements to the West Bank and police beefed up their presence in Jerusalem.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz meets President Donald Trump at the White House on January 27Blue and White leader Benny Gantz meets President Donald Trump at the White House on January 27
There were also frequent exchanges along the Gaza border with Palestinian gunmen firing rockets and sending incendiary balloons into southern Israel and Israeli aircraft hitting Hamas targets across the Strip.
Abbas said that the Deal of the Century had “created this atmosphere of escalation and tension by trying to impose fake facts on the ground.”
In response, Netanyahu accused the Palestinian leader of incitement to violence against Israel.
“This won’t help you [Abbas]. Not the stabbings, not the car-ramming attacks, not the sniping attacks, and not the incitement,” he said. “We will do everything necessary to guard our security, secure our borders, and guarantee our future. We will do this with you or without you.”
Hamas, which controls Gaza, said: “The spreading resistance and clashes by our people in the West Bank and their resistance in the heart of occupied Jerusalem is an active response against the destructive Trump deal.”
Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat rejected comments made by Jared Kushner, who blamed Abbas for the spike in attacks.
“The main reason for the violence is the Israeli occupation and the colonialist plan formulated by Kushner but Kushner blames President Abbas because he thinks that the very existence of the Palestinians and of international law is the problem,” Erekat said.
Despite the Palestinian rejection of the US plan, Abbas was careful not to go beyond the point of no return: he decided not to annul the Oslo Accords and he maintained a reduced security coordination with Israel, despite the threats to bring it to an end.
As he continued with efforts to persuade world leaders to endorse the Deal of the Century, Kushner described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “the hardest problem in the world” to solve, but maintained the peace plan was “a good first step” to start a discussion “that leads to a better pathway.”
“Not doing anything was not an option,” Kushner said. “I think the noble thing is to pursue peace and to try to figure out how do you take a complicated problem and make badly needed progress.”
So far, though, he has been unable to persuade the Palestinians – and without them, the Deal of the Century looks destined to end up as a mere historical footnote rather than the major milestone it promised to be.