Coronavirus pandemic put annexation on ventilator, politics could kill it

Diplomatic Affairs: Between corona crisis, upcoming US election and possibility of another Knesset election, Trump peace plan is on hold – but still has a chance of revival

US President Donald Trump visits Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, last week and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks in the corridors of the Knesset. (photo credit: TASOS KATOPODIS/REUTERS/MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
US President Donald Trump visits Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, last week and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks in the corridors of the Knesset.
It’s been more than three weeks since July 1, the first day the coalition agreement between the Likud and Blue and White allowed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bring the extension of Israeli sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria to a vote, came and went.
Nothing has happened on that front since then, and it is clear that nothing will this month, though neither the US nor Israel has given up on trying to implement US President Donald Trump’s peace plan.
July 1 passed mostly quietly. The evening before, following a meeting with US Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz and US Ambassador David Friedman, Netanyahu said: “We talked about the question of sovereignty that we are working on in these days, and we will continue to work on in the coming days.”
Sovereignty “will certainly happen in July,” in cooperation with the US, Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis told Army Radio that day.
And that was it. Netanyahu stopped talking about it. Within a few days, the question stopped coming up in most TV or radio interviews with politicians. There were occasional statements from anonymous officials saying it’s not over yet, but nothing more.
As usual, the world is disproportionately fixated on Israel, which means the UN Security Council condemnations and angry statements from European countries about annexation haven’t stopped since July 1, and were a feature of this week’s UNSC meeting, as well. But the international community seem even more out of touch than usual, when no one in Israel or the US is really discussing the matter anymore.
THE IMPRESSION one gets from Israeli media precisely reflects how things have gone for officials in Israel and the US when it comes to this issue: There was a boom of activity ahead of July 1, followed by a sudden bust.
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi told Ynet on Tuesday that “there are no discussions, no consultations” on sovereignty at the moment.
Settlement Affairs Minister Tzipi Hotovely said on Thursday that there have not been any sovereignty talks in the past three weeks, since Berkowitz and US National Security Council member C. Scott Leith left Israel.
“It’s not being discussed at all,” Hotovely said. “There were very intensive discussions, and then they totally stopped.”
No one seems to know when they will restart, and the reason is clear: “We are all committed, at this time, to addressing the [coronavirus] disease and the economy,” Ashkenazi said.
The kickoff date for sovereignty coincided with a second spike in coronavirus cases in Israel and in the US.
Even when COVID-19 seemed to have been quelled in Israel, many Israelis – ranging from half to much more, depending on the poll – had little appetite for sovereignty moves, perhaps because the economy didn’t buck up much in those weeks. With morbidity numbers climbing and thousands in quarantine, the public’s interest in applying Israeli law in Judea and Samaria at this time is unlikely to have increased.
Or as Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz told Ynet at the beginning of the month: “A million unemployed people don’t know what we’re talking about right now,” in relation to sovereignty moves.
The leaderships of both countries are overwhelmingly busy dealing with the pandemic and its fallout, and it does not look like the prediction Israel will apply sovereignty to the settlements in July will come true.
The pandemic is even keeping those working on the US-Israel relationship busy, with a US official in Israel saying one day in recent weeks that he had a dozen conversations with Israeli officials that day, and they were all about COVID-19, and not one was about the peace plan.
At the same time, the Israeli and American sides have taken pains to emphasize that the plan is still on their agenda.
Asked whether Israel missed the opportunity to apply its law in the West Bank, Hotovely said she would not be so sure it has been missed.
And Minister-without-Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi – set to replace Hotovely as settlement affairs minister when she becomes ambassador to the UK in September – told American Friends of Likud on Tuesday that Netanyahu is still “very much committed to the issue of sovereignty. He believes that we cannot give the Palestinians a veto right, and we need to take advantage of the fact that there is a very, very friendly administration, a very friendly president that understands the importance of sovereignty.”
The American side has also emphasized that it still wants to go forward with its plan, at the time that is right for Israel and the US.
Trump’s former envoy Jason Greenblatt told Army Radio on Thursday: “Nothing has ever been smooth on the peace file, and I hope the US and Israeli government keeps trying.... The release [of the plan] itself was, I think, an important first step on a long, complicated road; and at the right time, I hope there will be traction on it.
“I don’t think [Trump] has lost interest in the peace plan, but it certainly is no secret that we have our own challenges here because of COVID and the economic fallout,” he said. “Right now, it is President Trump’s job to focus on the USA and hopefully get reelected, as well.”
Sources on both the Israeli and US sides have said that Trump’s political situation could impact the timing of sovereignty moves, if they happen. Though the messaging from the US has mostly been that this is Israel’s decision, it’s clear that Israel will not do anything on the sovereignty front without full American support. And if Trump thinks that backing Israel while it applies its laws to parts of Judea and Samaria will electrify his Evangelical voter base, then it could be an October surprise, or earlier.
AND THEN there’s Israelis politics. As Hotovely said on Thursday, it seems like Israel is “one second before an election.”
If, before July 1, it seemed that disagreements between Netanyahu and Gantz about where exactly Israel would apply sovereignty and whether it could be done during the coronavirus crisis could derail the plans, now their disagreements on just about everything else are getting in the way.
Blue and White’s support in the Knesset on Wednesday for criminalizing conversion therapy for LGBT people – even though it was rejected in a ministerial vote, making the government’s official position against the bill – may have been the last straw for the dysfunctional unity government.
The haredi parties that had served as a sort of mediator between Netanyahu and Gantz in their myriad disagreements have now lost trust in the latter, and tensions are high just as the government is approaching the deadline to work on a budget or face an automatic election.
Amid reports that Netanyahu is considering the nuclear option – to blow up the unity government, that is – coalition chairman Miki Zohar said on Thursday that the Likud’s “political connection with Blue and White can’t continue if there isn’t a change. The situation has led to instability in the government that causes members of the coalition to do whatever they want without coalition discipline. The time has come to make a decision: passing the budget, stable government and a functioning coalition, or to go to an election.”
IN LIGHT of this election talk, it’s worth noting that July 1 was just another in a long series of delays in the Trump peace plan story.
The Trump administration delayed the release of its plan for over a year, as Israel went through one election after another. But after two elections in Israel and on the way to a third, with less than a year to the US presidential election that Trump could lose, meaning the plan would likely be dumped, they decided to make it public in January.
Netanyahu wanted to push forward with the plan immediately – or at least the part about Israel applying its laws to the settlements and Jordan Valley – but Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner favored a slower approach and to wait for a new government to be in place, delaying the implementation for several more months.
Trump and his team wanted a stable government that could implement the plan and be seen as more legitimate than a caretaker government in taking major steps to impact Israel’s future. And a unity government with Netanyahu from the Right and Gantz from the Center-Left at the helm would grant it even more legitimacy, because a large swath of the Israeli political spectrum supports it.
With political turmoil in Israel and the possibility of our election coinciding with the one in the US, it may be true that coronavirus put sovereignty plans on a ventilator, but politics could kill them.