2020: A year when normalization trumped annexation

SETTLEMENT AFFAIRS: Israel pulled back from West Bank annexation in 2020, but the story is not over.

A DEMONSTRATION in Jerusalem in February calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to declare sovereignty over the settlements in the West Bank. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
A DEMONSTRATION in Jerusalem in February calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to declare sovereignty over the settlements in the West Bank.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Within the annals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 2020 could likely be remembered as the time when history fell from the grasp of the Israeli Right and the settlement movement.
The tantalizing January 2020 promise of West Bank annexation gave way 12 months later to separate normalization deals between Israel and four regional countries, which plunged all right-wing dreams of sovereignty into a deep freeze just when it seemed the closest it had been to actualization.
In the 53 years since Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan during the 1967 Six Day War, the dreams of the Right with respect to Judea and Samaria have not risen as high and sunk so low within a 12 month period.
“We missed a historic opportunity. You never know when it will reoccur or how it will reoccur,” Efrat Council head Oded Revivi said.
That such a momentous rise and fall occurred on the sidelines of the COVID-19 pandemic and an unprecedented Israeli electoral crisis only added to the unusual element of the drama.
Twelve months ago, Yesha Council head David Elhayani was positive that 2020 would be the year of sovereignty.
“I was certain of it,” he said.
Such thoughts were hardly a pipe dream. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had made the issue a central part of his campaign platform in his quest to retain both his formal role as the leader of the country and the informal one as the head of the Israeli Right.
During the second electoral campaign, in September 2019, Netanyahu had promised to annex the Jordan Valley and to follow with the application of sovereignty to the West Bank settlements.
Elhayani’s position as the Jordan Valley Regional Council head, alongside his Yesha leadership role, put him at the heart of this campaign.
There were times when Elhayani would attend rallies and Netanyahu would call him to “come up onto the platform” and stand with him. Then they would clasp hands and hold them in the air, to underscore that a pledge had been made.
The situation, which peaked in January 2020, had already been the result of an unusual confluence of factors that had piled up over both the terms of former US president Barack Obama and that of US President Donald Trump. The six-year deep freeze on Israeli-Palestinian talks – spanning both their administrations – meant there was no actual peace process to act as a curbing influence to sovereignty aspirations.
Obama’s no-tolerance attitude toward Israeli settlement activity emboldened the Right, rather than weakening it. Minor and major settler actions were placed on the same scale in the international eye, metamorphosing the diplomatic taboo on annexation into an acceptable discourse within the Israeli Right.
By the end of the Obama years, Netanyahu was increasingly pressed to act. Political pressure grew, as it became clear that Trump and his administration were supportive of Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria.
When Netanyahu declared early elections in 2018, he was the only member of his Likud Party who had not spoken out in support of annexation, making such a plan almost a necessity for electoral victory.
Trump’s intention to release the “Deal of the Century” created another three-year window of frozen negations. In that pocket of time, the Israeli Right began to assume that the US had abandoned its support for a Palestinian state.
When 2020 opened, the Right and the settlement movement believed that Palestinian statehood had passed and that the road to annexation was open and achievable.
The anticipation of pending victory seemed certain when Trump invited Netanyahu to Washington for the unveiling of his “Peace to Prosperity” plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As a result, five settler leaders were among the Israelis who accompanied Netanyahu to be on the sidelines of that historic moment. These were Elhayani, Revivi, and regional council heads Shlomo Neeman from Gush Etzion, Israel Ganz from Binyamin and Yossi Dagan of Shomron.
The plan that was unveiled spoke of a four-year process to a two two-state solution. The plan also allowed Israel to annex up to 30% of the West Bank where all the settlements are located and placed most of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.
Israelis in Washington were initially led to understand they could annex immediately.
In that moment and until the five settler leaders flew out of the US to head home, they believed that annexation could come to a government vote within the week. In those few Washington days, they were as close as they ever had been to annexation.
Then, while they were flying above the clouds literally, it all fell apart. From there and over the next 11 months of 2020, it was just one long downward slide.
As the five leaders changed planes in France, they saw breaking news tickers on the television screens in the airport and received concerned text messages on their phones, through which they learned that annexation had been delayed.
The US had asked sovereignty supporters to wait until completion of a joint Israeli-US mapping process and then until after the formation of a new government. That delay was extended as the Likud coalition agreement with Blue and White prevented annexation until at least July 1.
Israelis and indeed the international community went to sleep on June 30, unsure if they would wake up to an announcement that the settlements had been annexed.
FROM THE Washington unveiling of the plan until July 1, the settlement movement and the Israeli Right were in battle mode – among themselves, with the Israeli government and the White House – over the plan.
Trump’s plan, which should have united the Israeli Right, split it into three battlegrounds, represented by the different positions the five settler leaders took on the issue, even though at the end of the day they all supported sovereignty.
Elhayani, Dagan, Ganz and Neeman all opposed the Trump plan on two grounds.
First, that it called for the creation of a Palestinian state, albeit a demilitarized and noncontiguous one.
Second, while they were glad for the sovereignty recognition, they opposed the map, which they feared was unsustainable. They believed that eventually the area of West Bank sovereignty, according to the plan, would be less than the promised 30%, and that Israel would eventually have to withdraw from territory on which at least 15 settlements were located. Ultimately, the sovereignty they had imagined was theirs, was a unilateral Israeli one, and not a US-dictated one.
Out of the five leaders, Elhayani broke away from the pack by directly attacking the US president, stating blatantly that Trump was not a friend of Israel. It’s a statement he never apologized for.
Neeman, Ganz and Dagan walked a much thinner line, in which they lauded Trump, while simultaneously opposing his map. It was a tactic that almost every right-wing politician took. Even Yamina Party head Naftali Bennett refused to butt heads with Trump.
Revivi took a different approach altogether, throwing his support behind the Trump plan. For him, this was an unprecedented opportunity, so much so, that he believed the Right and the settlement community should accept the map and Palestinian statehood as presented under the terms of the Trump plan.
“This was the first time that something original came to the table, and it looked like a good starting point to lead into something that might succeed,” he reflected.
He was not alone. The division lines ran straight through the 25-member Yesha Council, which often presents a unified front.
To settlers like Elhayani, the Palestinian state presented such an existential threat that, when asked, he said he was willing to give up on sovereignty if it meant thwarting Palestinian statehood.
Revivi said the statehood presented under Trump would not threaten Israel and was therefore worth the price.
BUT THE battles around annexation were much wider than the settlement movement, it involved the Israeli Left, the Palestinian Authority as well as the American Jewish Left, US Democrats and the international community.
Left-wing and centrist nongovernmental organizations both in Israel and the United States held numerous Zoom meetings to warn about the dangers of annexation, while right-wing ones held similar seminars urging its benefits. Former IDF commanders weighed in on both sides of the matter.
The PA warned that the plan was a death blow to a two-state solution and suspended its security coordination with Israel in protest, embarking on a diplomatic campaign against the plan. The European Union and individual states issued warning messages to Israel. Jordan, particularly through its Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, said that Israeli plans to annex could harm the 1994 peace treaty between the two countries.
Then, in the July heat, the voices slowly quieted as everyone waited in suspended animation for something, anything to happen. Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis pointed in the direction of Washington and said that Israel awaited a US announcement.
The delay was telling. When the Trump administration finally did speak out on August 13, it sent Israel, the region and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a new direction by announcing the Abraham Accords, by which Israel would normalize ties with Arab and Muslim states in exchange for suspending annexation.
Then there was the finger-pointing at the Yesha Council for not unifying in support of the plan; at Netanyahu for not throwing caution to the wind; and at Blue and White, which had opposed unilateral annexation that was not part and parcel of a dialogue with the Palestinians and other Arab states.
In retrospect, Revivi said, “The issue of sovereignty created an asset that Netanyahu could bargain with.”
He doesn’t know if that was part of the plan all along, or the consequence of it, but either way, “the whole issue of the Trump deal created a new discussion that, in and of itself, was something to negotiate over,” Revivi said.
Neeman said he believes that the Trump administration had been serious about sovereignty, but that other factors had intervened.
Overnight, the settlement movement and the Israeli Right had gone from achieving a 53-year objective to wondering if it had moved back a decade to when the operative demand was a settlement freeze. The concern was that the Arab states would increase the demand from suspension of annexation to suspension of settlement activity.
The enormous horizons the normalization deals opened for Israel went a long way to silencing calls for annexation, with the Trump administration pledging its support to eventual sovereignty.
Right-wing politicians and settler leaders urged de facto annexation and in particular pressed for the advancement of building projects and the authorization of West Bank outposts.
Then the other shoe dropped, with Trump losing the election to Joe Biden, who had been Obama’s vice president and a known opponent of settlement activity.
WILL BIDEN’S entry into the White House bury the possibility of annexation?
Elhayani said that COVID-19 has taught him not to make any predictions.
“If you had told me that in 2020 everyone would be walking around in masks, I would not have believed it,” he said.
Nor was this year necessarily a loss, he added. For him the annexation equation changed the moment the Trump plan was unveiled. Elhayani said when he looks back at 2020, this, for him, will be the year that “we saved it [Israel] from a Palestinian state.”
Looking back, Neeman said, it is possible that the Right could have worked through the Republicans to pressure Trump, “but there was a danger to that as well.”
He added, “It could have helped, but it could have caused him to “overturn tables. Trump is not the kind of person that one pressures.”
Revivi said he doesn’t see how sovereignty, which he refers to as the application of Israeli law, could be applied now, even though Biden is not expected to put forward a peace plan.
When speaking with Democrats or those in the incoming Biden administration, Revivi said, he is urging them to stick with the Trump plan.
“I am definitely asking them not to take off the table what Trump has put on the table, just because it was introduced by Trump, but to try and examine it.”
But the next phase of the story, according to the settler leaders, now passes back to Israel, given that the country is now in its fourth election in two years. The electoral discord means that sovereignty may have to wait until government stability is established.
“We are heading toward elections in less than three months,” and the attempt to form a government will take another few months, so that it could easily be half a year before anything could move forward, Revivi explained.
There is also a possibility that attempts to form a government would fail and that even a fifth election could be in the offing, he added.
Sovereignty should always have been an internal Israeli decision with no consideration given to Washington's opinion, Elhayani said, adding that it has not been taken off the right wing’s agenda.
Neeman speculated: If COVID-19 is brought under control; if a right-wing government is formed that has staying power, and the normalization deals are reversible, then there is no reason the issue of sovereignty would not move forward even with Biden in the White House.
“I don’t think it’s the end of the story. We saw, Trump wanted to [apply sovereignty] but didn’t succeed. It could be that Biden doesn’t want to [apply sovereignty] but in the end we will succeed with it,” Neeman said.