The 14-page agreement Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White head Benny Gantz signed Monday to form an emergency government stipulates it will be able to promote only coronavirus-related legislation for the first six months after being sworn in.
Except for one glaring exception: advancing US President Donald Trump’s peace plan and the extension of Israeli sovereignty – under that plan and with the agreement of the US – to areas of Judea and Samaria. As of July 1, according to the coalition deal, Netanyahu can bring a decision to annex to a discussion in the cabinet and/or the Knesset.
The language in this very legalistic document was precise for a reason. If inside the cabinet, where the Likud and Blue and White blocs will have parity, such an annexation plan does not pass, Netanyahu can bring it to the Knesset, where it would be expected to muster a majority with the support of Yisrael Beytenu and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem faction.
Why was this issue the one non-coronavirus related exception that can be dealt with in the next six months? Simple, because the clock is rapidly ticking toward the US November 3 election, and six months from when the emergency government is likely to be sworn in will be just days before the balloting. Netanyahu wants the ability to move on this issue well before that date.
Why? First, because the Trump administration will not have the bandwidth to deal with such a significant development so soon before the elections.
And second, because Trump, for his own political considerations, has an interest in this happening sooner rather than later, so that during a campaign that will now be dominated by his handling of the plague, he can tout Israeli annexation of much of its biblical heartland as a significant achievement to Evangelical voters, many of whom support such a move.
But then what?
If Israel announces in July annexation of the Jordan Valley and all the settlements – as the Trump plan allows it to do, once a joint committee delineates the exact lines – and Trump then wins another term, the US and Israel together will fend off the diplomatic opposition sure to come from the Europeans and the Arab states, just as they fended off opposition from those quarters to the US Embassy move to Jerusalem in 2018.
But what if Trump loses? What if presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins? Biden, who was just endorsed by the left-wing J Street adamantly opposed to the settlements and annexation. Biden, who will have to keep the left wing of his party happy, a wing adamantly opposed to the settlements and annexation.
Biden himself said in a taped message to AIPAC last month that “Israel, I think, has to stop the threats of annexation and settlement activity.”
In his view, therefore, Israel has to stop doing what Trump’s “Deal of the Century” explicitly enables it to do: extend its sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, while at the same time supporting the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state on the remaining 70% of the territory, with its capital on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
And this places Israel on the horns of a major dilemma.
Should it take advantage of the historic opportunity Trump has provided to retain the areas that it thinks are essential to it, both for security and religious/historical reasons? Or should it pass on this chance, out of the concern that Biden might take over power in 2020 and roll the whole thing back?
Should Israel act now? Or, rather, should it defer action until later, to see if Trump is reelected, but in the process risk the chance of losing the ability to act at all – at least through the duration of a Biden term?
WHAT THIS may finally force Israel to do, some 53 years after the Six Day War brought east Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and all of Sinai under its control, is to decide what in fact it wants.
Not what it can get, not what the world will allow it to have, not what the Palestinians will fight it over, but what it wants and needs.
One of Israel’s biggest problems since 1967 has been that the country has never decided for itself what it wants. It has never decided for itself where it thinks its borders should run. It has never decided for itself – once and for all – what to do with the settlements, with Jerusalem. From the day after the war, Israel waited for a telephone call from its Arab neighbors to negotiate. That wait, which lasted decades, sent the world an unmistakable message: it’s all negotiable; what Israel wants depends on what it can get.
But “depends” is not policy. You can’t achieve what you can’t define. And one of Israel’s cardinal problems over the last half century has been an inability to define, and clearly declare, what exactly it wants. Now, with a wide government representing elements of both the Right and the Left and speaking in the name of a wide majority of the country, it could finally have an opportunity to say, “This is what Israel wants, this is what Israel needs.”
One of the unique elements of the Trump plan is that it was drawn up very closely with Israel, and the current administration – as opposed to previous ones – did not tell Israel what it needs for its own security and identity, but, rather, it asked Israel what it thinks it needs.
And the answer came in the form of the document unveiled in the White House in January – “The Deal of the Century” – which is a good reflection of what Israel thinks it needs, and what it can give. And now Israel must decide whether to move forward on this plan, or wait, lest another administration come into power and change direction.
There are those who will advise Israel to wait until after November. If Trump wins, then – this school of thought maintains – he will surely allow Israel to do in his second term what he would have allowed it to do in the twilight of his first.
On the other hand, if Israel annexes now, and Trump loses to Biden, then there will be a major clash with a Biden administration. Why not just wait, and avoid that confrontation.
Why not? the counterargument asks. Because if Israel waits until next year, it will once again be avoiding the difficult chore of making a decision and telling the world clearly what it wants and needs. If it feels that the boundaries laid down under the Trump plan are the boundaries it must have, then it should act on the plan, and let the chips fall where they may.
Before a decision is made, all elements will have to be taken into consideration – such as the implications this will have on peace with Jordan and relations with the Arab world – but those considerations need to be Israel’s alone. Is peace with Jordan more valuable, for instance, than control of Jerusalem and the settlements? Would annexation, along with a stated willingness to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state, necessarily lead to an end to peace with Jordan, a peace that serves Jordan as much as it serves Israel?
In this thinking, Israel alone has to decide what it wants, pure and simple. It cannot control what other countries do, only what it does. It needs to decide and then deal with the geopolitical fallout the best it can. And, as it has proven in the past, it can be pretty agile when dealing with adverse geopolitical situations.
There is another component to this argument as well. If Israel annexes some of the territory under the Trump plan, and in the process also – as the plan calls for – shows a real willingness to countenance the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state on the remaining territory, then If a Biden administration turns around and says that the annexation is null and void, Israel could argue that this opposition is what is standing in the way of the two-state solution so many for so long have said they want to see.
One senior diplomatic official recently summed up Israel’s dilemma with an analogy taken from the business world.
“Let’s say someone wants to invest, but he said he will not invest in a company unless he has 100% certainty that he will make a 20% return on his money. Then, guess what, he will never invest, because nobody can guarantee that kind of return. You take risks in life,” the official said, “educated risks, calculated risks that you think will get you to the right place, the place where you want to be. You make the investment and hope it turns out well.”
With the coronavirus swirling all around, the one decision not related to the plague that the Netanyahu-Gantz emergency government is going to have to make, almost immediately upon being sworn in, is whether annexing territories without a guarantee that Trump will be returned to office is the kind of gamble it can afford to take.