One of the major issues of contention in the past two weeks of negotiations between Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a unity coalition has been the Trump peace plan.
Coalition talks have been overshadowed by the spread of the coronavirus. Netanyahu led the cabinet into escalating greater restrictions of movement; Gantz, as Knesset speaker, led votes to allow the government to expand its budget to help struggling businesses and individuals; and between all that, they had to find time for politics.
Despite being very busy with coronavirus-related developments, they seemingly treated their negotiations in relation to the peace plan as they would under more normal circumstances.
The plan, released earlier this year, would allow Israel to apply its laws to 30% of the West Bank – including all settlements, the Jordan Valley and more. Israel would then have to commit to not building outside of that 30%. Israel and the US formed a joint mapping committee to determine those exact lines, which began working soon after the plan was announced in late January.
The other 70% of the West Bank would be designated for an eventual Palestinian state, which the US would support if the Palestinians meet benchmarks, including demilitarization, stopping payments to terrorists, developing democratic institutions and guaranteeing civil rights. Should the Palestinians follow these guidelines, a massive US-led economic aid package would kick in.
There are two major points of contention in this plan when it comes to Israeli politics. First is settlement annexation, and the second is support for a Palestinian state.
When it comes to Gantz and Netanyahu’s negotiations, the former is the problem.
Even before the plan was released, Netanyahu promised to annex the Jordan Valley. After its release, that promise grew into annexation of all the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria.
Gantz’s position was less clear. He talked about Israel retaining the Jordan Valley, but did not specify in what way – security presence, continuing settlements, or annexation. He made comments enthusiastically supporting the Trump plan, both to US President Donald Trump and members of his administration, and publicly – but also said that Israel can annex settlements or the Jordan Valley only with international support, which is unlikely to ever be attained.
During coalition talks, Gantz’s advisers emphasized the need for international support, especially from Jordan, which strongly opposes annexation and could be destabilized by the change.
No coalition deal had been signed yet when these lines were written, but the sides had reached some agreements about the Trump plan. Netanyahu would have to wait until July 10 to bring the plan to a cabinet vote. The prime minister would have to consult with Gantz and Trump before doing so, but Gantz would not have veto power over moving forward with the plan, and he dropped his former condition for doing so, which was to coordinate with the king of Jordan, as well.
If Gantz has no veto power over annexation it would likely pass in the Knesset with as many as 71 votes. The pro-Netanyahu bloc has 58 seats, plus the new Derech Eretz Party and Gesher add another 3 votes, which means that there is a pro-annexation Knesset majority coming from coalition votes alone. In addition, Yisrael Beytenu’s seven MKs and the three lawmakers from Telem in Yesh Atid-Telem could back the move.
Of course, there is the other side of the Trump plan – the Palestinian state. As a Trump administration figure confirmed this week, their support for applying Israeli law to settlements is contingent on acceptance of the full plan. Any vote on the plan would be a vote to approve a map that draws the borders of a potential Palestinian state.
When the plan was released, Yamina made its opposition clear. Some in the Likud have quietly expressed discomfort with it, as well. Yoaz Hendel, one-half of Derech Eretz, opposes a Palestinian state. Yisrael Beytenu and Telem are not in the potential coalition. And Blue and White will have half the seats in the cabinet.
Which means that the cabinet vote could be a snag in Netanyahu’s plan to circumvent Gantz on the way to annexation, because his majority there is not assured.
THIS POLITICAL calculus makes sense under normal circumstances. But in the days of coronavirus, so many things are out of the politicians’ hands. We don’t really know when there will be few enough new cases of the virus to allow Israelis to return to part of, or all of, their regular routines.
Which is why the July 10 date stands out as a particularly strange part of the likely coalition agreement.
Gantz wanted to wait and see if Trump wins reelection in November, while Netanyahu did not want to let the opportunity for annexation pass. They compromised on a delay, but a much shorter one than Gantz originally sought.
The Trump administration expressed some confusion over Gantz’s insistence on a delay if he’s in effect agreeing to annexation anyway, and the July 10 date has no significance for them.
However, the joint US-Israel mapping committee remains important. Restrictions on movement due to the spread of coronavirus began not long after the committee began its work, and it has since had to put things on hold. Though US diplomats technically have diplomatic immunity and are therefore able to move freely, this would not be the ideal time to travel around the West Bank to determine where to draw a border.
It’s not clear when the restrictions due to the coronavirus will end and whether July 10 will be too tight a deadline to move things forward, though the US is committed to dedicating the necessary manpower and time to the process, and a source said that even now US diplomats are accessible to answer any Israeli questions on the matter.
On the Israeli end, Netanyahu and some of the other officials involved in the process are also directly involved in the government’s response to coronavirus and don’t seem to have the bandwidth at this point to handle both.
It’s not just this artificial July 10 date that the potential government could see go by without action, due to a continued coronavirus crisis.
The longer annexation is delayed, the closer we get to November, when the US election will take place. Trump could be more hesitant to have a risky move made in his name when he is up for reelection. And if the US ends up with a President Joe Biden, annexation will be off the table entirely.This puts Netanyahu and other annexation proponents in an impossible dilemma. Try to make a move too soon, and they may just not be able to do it because of the public health crisis. Wait too long, and they might not have US support anymore.