Will Netanyahu follow through on annexation?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: What follows is a look at the issues: the timing, pros, cons and potential fallout.

A CHECKPOINT near Jerusalem. Will it become an official border or Israel? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A CHECKPOINT near Jerusalem. Will it become an official border or Israel?
Up until May 17, when a new government was sworn into office based on a cumbersome coalition agreement drawn up between the Likud and the Blue and White parties, July 1 had no particular significance.
But once the government was sworn in, and the coalition agreement went into effect, that day suddenly became imbued with all kinds of consequence. Because that is the day from which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – after consulting with Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, getting the “full consent” of the Americans, and having engaged in “international dialogue on the matter” – could bring the issue of the “application of sovereignty to hearings in the cabinet and the government, and for approval by the government and/or the Knesset.”
Not exactly a deadline, but a date by which the government could – if so inclined – take action. And there’s the rub – is it so inclined? Should it be? Here we are, just five days before the much-discussed date – widely mistaken as some kind of deadline – and no one really knows what the government will do.
The Palestinians have threatened violence, the Arab states have threatened to stop cooperation, the Europeans have threatened sanctions, some US Democrats have threatened a reassessment of ties, but there still remains one big imponderable: What will Israel do? And because of all the aforementioned background noise, many Israelis are grappling with another question: What should it do?
According to the terms of the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” framework – informally known as the “Deal of the Century” – Israel can extend its sovereignty to up to 30% of Judea and Samaria. That plan also calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state on the remaining 70% of the West Bank, plus on land inside sovereign Israel that will be swapped to bring the area of a Palestinian state up to what constituted the West Bank and Gaza before the Six Day War.
What follows is a look at the issues: the timing, pros, cons and potential fallout.
Timing: Why do it now?
For those in favor of what has generally become known as annexation – though some argue this is an improper use of the term, since a country can annex only land that was part of another country, and the West Bank never belonged to another state – the stars have aligned in such a way that if Israel wants to assert its control over the territory, the time to move is precisely now.
The reasons are obvious: a US president in office who has put his name on a plan sanctioning the move, and a global pandemic. Netanyahu has repeatedly spoken of this as a “historic” opportunity,” historic in that Israel does not know when there may be another US administration that understands the rationale behind Israeli settlement in Judea and Samaria, and does not view those settlements as “peace obstacles.”
Why now? Because in five months US President Donald Trump may well go down to election defeat, and an administration under the leadership of the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden would certainly frown on such a move. So in that sense, it is now or never.
Furthermore, according to this argument, COVID-19 presents a good opportunity because most governments around the world – even though a number have already loudly condemned the proposed step – are preoccupied with much weightier issues: the physical and economic health of their citizens.
Timing: Why not now?
Opponents of the move cite the same two factors – Trump and corona – as reasons that now is precisely not the time for this step.
Trump, according to this reasoning, is unlikely to be reelected. The tanking of the US economy, the state of race relations in the US, and the way the government is dealing with the coronavirus have turned what looked like a reasonable shot at reelection into a very long shot. As such, why tempt fate? Why get off with the new president on the wrong foot, as was done with Barack Obama?
Similarly, this school of thought argues, you don’t want to make a move like this – which has huge ramifications – during the time of corona.
If even some of the worst-case scenarios from the move materialize and there is widespread rioting in the West Bank and rockets flying from Gaza, Israel may be forced to respond with tough military measures, perhaps even necessitating mobilizing the reserves. This would place an additional strain on the economy already moaning under the weight of COVID-19.
Pros: Why do it at all?
Israel has controlled the West Bank since 1967, and a status quo has emerged – perhaps not great, but not catastrophic either. Why rock the boat? What would change?
What changes is the legal status of the territory. As long as Israel does not extend its sovereignty, the areas are under military rule. As such, what Israel is able to do in the territory is limited. Yes, Israeli law extends to the Israelis living there, to the people, but not to the land. For instance, Israel cannot assert a right of eminent domain – take private property for public use – in an area under military rule to expand a road. Applying sovereignty would change that.
On the diplomatic front, those in favor say that this would make it clear to everyone that the time has come to abandon dreams of a complete and total Israeli return to the 1967 lines – what Abba Eban referred to as “Auschwitz lines.” Annexing the territory shows what Israel believes is vital for its security and national identity.
On a security level, the argument for annexation is that the territories to come under formal Israeli control – first and foremost the Jordan Valley and the settlements around Jerusalem – are essential for security purposes. The Jordan Valley would place a buffer between Israel and any possible invasion (Iran) from the east, and the settlement blocs around Jerusalem protect the capital. Furthermore, annexing settlements on the mountain ridge in Samaria overlooking the coastal plain is essential to prevent rockets from one day being set up there – Gaza style – to rain down on Israeli cities.
And on the religious/historical level, the argument is that areas being incorporated are part of the biblical heartland that God promised the Jewish people.

Arguments against
The main argument against is that the move is unilateral and slams the door shut to the possibility of a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines, with east Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Those against the plan dismiss the Palestinian state envisioned under the Trump plan as a nonstarter because it is noncontiguous and because Israel would retain all security control. Furthermore, that state fails to meet the Palestinian demands for a capital in east Jerusalem, or for a Palestinian “right of return.”
In the 27 years since the Oslo Accords were signed, the world has gradually come to believe that the only solution to the conflict is a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines, with east Jerusalem as its capital. Anything less than that is widely seen as making short shrift of the Palestinian demands, and the state envisioned in the Trump plan is viewed by critics as doing just that.
In deciding whether to go ahead with this type of step, there is a need to weigh the benefits against the risks. Israel’s problem is that while it can assess the benefits (some may say they are minimal, others that they are more considerable), the costs are less clear.
It is clear the move will infuriate the Palestinians, the Arab world, the Europeans and much of the US Democratic Party, but it is not clear how far they will take that fury.
Will the Palestinians protest and even riot for a few days, but then realize that this is futile? An even bigger question is whether Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would carry out his threat to close down the PA and “turn the keys over to Israel.” Such a move would place a tremendous security and financial burden on Israel, at a time when it has to deal intensively with the financial burden caused by the coronavirus.
And if Abbas does indeed shut down the PA, who will move into the vacuum? Will this present Iran – through Hamas and Islamic Jihad – with an opportunity to take advantage of the chaos and move in?
And what about Gaza? Will this move precipitate hundreds, maybe thousands, of rockets on the south and even the center of the country?
Then there is the concern that this will force Jordan’s King Abdullah to recall his ambassador and downgrade ties. Will he be more lax in patrolling the long border with Israel, enabling terrorists to infiltrate from the east, something that has not happened in significant numbers for decades?
Not to mention the threats from the Persian Gulf countries, such as the UAE, to stop cooperating with Israel, and Qatar’s threats not to funnel money into the Gaza Strip, something that serves Israel’s interests.
European countries – such as Britain and France – have threatened that such a move will impact ties with Israel, and there will surely be moves inside a number of EU countries to downgrade economic and even political ties with Israel as a result.
And in the US, though Israel will move on this only with a green light from Trump, still, at a time when the US is divided and reeling, is a green light from the most divisive president in a century all that Israel really needs?
There are two responses in Israel to these worries.
The first is to say, “been there, done that, and survived.” The Palestinians and the world have threatened in the past that the earth world quake and burn if certain actions were taken, yet when those actions were taken, the earth neither quaked nor burned – the most recent example being the US Embassy move to Jerusalem in 2018. The same, they predict, will happen this time around.
The second response is to say, “Wait a minute, we better take this very seriously, because this time things are different, this time the stakes are higher, this is not just moving one embassy, it is creating facts on the ground that will make a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines impossible to attain. This time neither the Palestinians, the Arabs, nor the Europeans are fooling around: this time there’ll be hell to pay.”
Netanyahu, over the last 11 years in office, has shown he does not readily risk Israeli lives. Yes, he takes military action when he feels he must – such as action against Iranian assets in Syria – and he okays daring intelligence missions, like the operation to attain Iran’s nuclear archive. But, in general, he is a prime minister who treads cautiously. That he has refrained during his time in office from a major ground incursion in Gaza is proof of this.
Additional proof is how he has managed the coronavirus crisis, willing to have the country pay a huge economic price in order to keep its morbidity rate relatively low.
Netanyahu refused to gamble with the coronavirus. In the coming days the world will see whether he is willing to gamble on annexation.