Why August is critical for West Bank annexation - analysis

Could Netanyahu attempt to pass annexation now, in the next 20 days?

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu – is annexation more a political interest than a legacy issue? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu – is annexation more a political interest than a legacy issue?
No one has said it directly.
But Israel is in a 20-day countdown to see if meaningful steps can be taken to annex portions of the West Bank.
The 20-day deadline is not due to Washington, or the settlers, or right-wing politicians, or the European Union, the Palestinians or the United Nations.
But rather a do-or-die budget battle between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who wants a one-year budget, and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, who wants a two-year budget.
Unless a budget is passed by August 25, the country, according to its rules of procedure, will be forced to head to a fourth election.
The moment the government falls, the entire issue of annexation, in any meaningful way, likely ends, unless US President Donald Trump wins the November 3 election.
Israel’s election cycle means that voters here would also head to the ballot in November. By the time an Israeli government is formed, Trump could be heading out of office with little chance of protecting Israel diplomatically with regard to annexation.
Should the government fall on August 25, the entire future of annexation would hinge on a Trump win, given that his opponent, presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, opposes the application of sovereignty to West Bank settlements.
True, Netanyahu could symbolically seek to pass annexation during an election period, but it would be meaningless unless ratified by a new government. Again, that ratification could only occur in 2021.
Could Netanyahu attempt to pass annexation now, in the next 20 days?
Netanyahu could. In fact, Yesha Council head David Elhayani reminded Netanyahu publicly on Monday that he has the power to do so. Certainly Netanyahu has Knesset support, should he choose to go that route.
But if Netanyahu were to move forward on annexation, without the green light from Washington, he would be going against the coalition agreement with Blue and White, a move that would most certainly risk new elections irrespective of the budget battle and the August 25 date.
Netanyahu has been clear that he does not want an election. What this really means is that if a fourth election is held, Netanyahu wants it to be someone else’s fault. An annexation vote would make Netanyahu directly liable for the election – during a pandemic – when the country most needs a government.
So the only way really that Netanyahu would move forward now is under pressure from Washington. It is for this reason that Netanyahu told the Likud faction on Monday that “the issue [of sovereignty] is in Washington.”
A directive from the White House to both Netanyahu and Gantz that an annexation vote is necessary in August is likely the only way for Netanyahu to move forward without risking the government’s collapse.
For that to happen, Trump would have to perceive that this narrow window exists and to believe that sovereignty was so critical to his reelection that it must happen now.
Even if Trump did, there is speculation that the reason for the delay in a Washington annexation green light is a disagreement between Israel and the White House over the price Israel would have to pay to annex 30% of the West Bank. This is effectively half of Area C, where all the settlements are located.
It’s believed that the Trump administration wants Israel to either hand the remainder of Area C over to the Palestinian Authority or approve significant Palestinian building in that area. Netanyahu reportedly has balked at either move. Even if Netanyahu would agree, he has no political support for it.
Could annexation move forward during these 20 days without Netanyahu?
Possibly, as there are a number of private member sovereignty bills that have been filed by Knesset members. Technically, there are votes for those bills, but pragmatically, it is believed, that at the end of the day, Likud politicians would only vote for them with Netanyahu’s approval.
Should Netanyahu and Gantz manage to find a budget compromise, and should the government survive August, then the matter of annexation can roll into September.
But the entire debate over annexation has renewed the spotlight on Area C. This is a region that covers 60% of the West Bank. It is under Israeli military and civilian control.
Although the Trump plan divides it between Israelis and Palestinians, neither are happy with that division.
Right-wing Israelis want all of Area C to be under sovereign Israel. The Palestinians want that territory to be part of their future state.
The longer the delay in annexation, the more attention has begun to turn to what the left wing has termed “de-facto annexation” and what the right-wing has described as the “battle for Area C.” The left wing and annexation opponents have also included east Jerusalem in this equation.
Last week, European countries sent a warning letter to Israel, not over annexation, but over two large Jewish building projects.
The first project involves plans for 3,412 settler homes in E1, which is an unbuilt area of the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement. The second involves a tender for 1,077 Jewish homes in a new neighborhood of east Jerusalem called Givat Hamatos.
The idea is that settler building in Area C solidifies Israel’s hold over the area and makes annexation a foregone conclusion. Similarly, the left wing argued that Jewish building in east Jerusalem makes it impossible for that part of the city to become a future Palestinian capital.
If Netanyahu can not move forward on annexation in August, he can advance Jewish and settler building in a way that could impact Area C and east Jerusalem.
Netanyahu could allow for the Givat Hamatos tender to move forward. It was already scheduled to be posted on Sunday. After that, he could continue to advance the E1 project, once the objection period ends on August 18.
Both these projects are seen as critical to the overall map of sovereign Israeli territory.
Lastly, Netanyahu could convene the Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria to approve and advance additional setter building in Area C. There is speculation that such a meeting could happen in the coming weeks.
What this means is that, either way, the dead heat of an August Middle East summer will likely make its marks on the map of the West Bank and future annexation plans.