Will annexation be the key to a Netanyahu victory? – analysis

This time around, Netanyahu has hyper focused on the extreme, centrist and soft right-wing voters, by going into overdrive on sovereignty and settlement building.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking with Ma'aleh Adumim mayor Benny Kashriel (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking with Ma'aleh Adumim mayor Benny Kashriel
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
“Just two mandates to victory,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted on the last day prior to election as he urged his right-wing supporters to “go out to vote Likud.”
It was the tail end of a third election campaign, in which Netanyahu pulled out all the stops to change the electoral map in favor of a right-wing government; something he has failed to form for two elections running.
At issue both times has been Netanyahu’s determination to form a right-wing bloc, including with the hardei parties, something he has not had the votes to do without Yisrael Beytenu Party head Avigdor Liberman. The idea is so ensconced in the election rhetoric, that supporting the Likud is part of Shas’s campaign slogan this time around.
Twice now, Liberman has thwarted Netanyahu, pushing unsuccessfully instead for the formation of a centrist right-wing secular government with Blue and White and the Likud.
This time around, Netanyahu has hyper focused on the extreme, centrist and soft right-wing voters, by going into overdrive on sovereignty and settlement building.
Netanyahu was in power for nine years without ever speaking of the annexation of even one settlement, let alone all of them.
During the first election cycle that began in December 2018 and ended in April 2019, he hinted at it only once, dropping the word sovereignty only toward the end of the campaign, saying vaguely that he would start to annex settlements. By then he was one of the last people in his Likud Party to pledge support for the idea.
During the second election, he took the annexation plunge more seriously, but again, only toward the end, when he promised to annex all the West Banks. But he specially focused on the Jordan Valley, saying he would apply sovereignty to it immediately upon formation of the next government and gave no time table for the rest.
But coming 10 years from when he took power, in 2009, it almost seemed like too little, too late. In the first election cycle, he tied with Blue and White, both parties drawing 35 mandates. During the second election cycle, Netanyahu fell behind Blue and White, garnering only 32 mandates compared to its 33.
This time around, Netanyahu made sovereignty one of his primary focuses, mentioning it during most of his campaign rallies. But Netanyahu did more than talk, he effectively changed the diplomatic dialogue around the issue of West Bank settlements, with help from his friend in the White House, US President Donald Trump, who is himself in the midst of a re-election campaign.
The first shift occurred in November, slightly before the start of the third election cycle, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dramatic statement that the US considered that West Bank settlement were not inconsistent with international law. That was followed by the unveiling of the political component of Trump’s peace plan in January, which spoke for the first time of Israel’s historical rights to territory over the pre-1967 lines in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Trump peace plan recognized Israel’s right to apply sovereignty to the West Bank and its existing sovereignty over most of Jerusalem, including east Jerusalem, save for Arab neighborhoods on the other side of the barrier.
Most significantly, it announced that Israel could annex 30% of the West Bank, including all the settlements. Netanyahu secured that promise, without having to give up any territory. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon destroyed 25 settlement in Gaza and northern Samaria just to secure a promise from former US President George Bush, that the settlement blocs would be part of Israel’s final borders.
Netanyahu secured a US pledge for all sovereignty over all the settlements without removing a single settler home. It was a victory that even his skeptics could not tarnish as they sought to insist he had failed because he did not annex immediately.
Netanyahu hammered home the diplomatic sovereignty victory at almost every rally. He made more visits to settlements during this third election cycle than the last two. This included a trip to Hebron, where he clearly pledged that the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Jewish community there would be under Israeli sovereignty.
He hammered home the point that Trump’s peace plan had changed the entire diplomatic approach to Judea and Samaria, including through the removal of restrictions on West Bank building. In the last two weeks of the campaign Netanyahu moved forward on a number of diplomatically taboo projects. This included publishing a tender to build a new Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem’s Givat Hamatos and the advancement of plans to construct close to 3,500 settler homes in an unbuilt area of the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement known as E1.
At a campaign event on Sunday Netanyahu spoke of how his statements about sovereignty had been reduced to political pre-election spins.
“Now it is part of the reality. Now everyone understands that Trump and I intend to do this,” Netanyahu said adding that it would occur within weeks of the completion of the joint Israeli-US mapping process.
On some level it is easy to cast skepticism on Netanyahu’s comments with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because diplomatic expediency has placed him on both the right and left of the political map.
Netanyahu also promised E1 construction in 2012 that never occurred. During his first term in office, from 1996 to 199, Netanyahu shook hands with former Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and divided Hebron. During his second term in office, he imposed a ten-month moratorium on new settler housing starts that at the time, was widest ranging building freeze in Judea and Samaria that an Israeli government had ever imposed.
But it would be too simplistic to reduce his record on the settlements to one of inconsistency and broken promises. One has to look at the larger context, that all his moves toward the left of the map, were done under the former US democratic presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and could be also seen as deft diplomatic maneuvering and buying for time, so that he could arrive at this moment.
Right-wing voters who desire sovereignty, will have to decide if Netanyahu is a political leader they can trust. Their other options are Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who has never wavered in his support for applying sovereignty to all of Area C and has no issue standing strong against Trump’s peace plan, which only calls for sovereignty over 30% of the West Bank. He also opposes the part of the Trump plan, which calls for a demilitarized Palestinian state on 70% of the West Bank. But Bennett in the end, places Israel at odds with the Trump White House. Blue and White party head Benny Gantz has also promised to adhere to the Trump plan including sovereignty, but he lacks the coalition to support it. The only other option would be Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party, but he has not sworn allegiance to Netanyahu and could plunge the country into a fourth election.
Netanyahu in the final weeks of the campaign has sounded increasingly so convincing on sovereignty, because he offers the most realistic potential for it, even in light of his past history.
The polls have given him a bump up. Monday’s election will show if its sovereignty gamble has succeeded or failed.