Netanyahu caters to Right, divorces Palestinian statehood from annexation

The prime minister has Knesset support to annex the West Bank settlements, something which he has said he could do as early as July.

Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s much touted skill at ambiguous pledges reached one of its heights last week, as he appeared to have found a way to appease both US President Donald Trump and his vocal right-wing opposition.
In an interview with the Makor Rishon newspaper, Netanyahu seemed to lay out a path, by which he could meet Trump’s dictates that linked Palestinian statehood with Israeli annexation, while at the same time assuring the right that he is divorcing the two issues.
Netanyahu has Knesset support to annex the West Bank settlements, something which he has said he could do as early as July.
But the prime minister stands to lose some of that support should a sovereignty vote include any language that speaks of a Palestinian state, even a demilitarized one. Yamina Party head MK Naftali Bennett has already stated that he would support a “good” sovereignty plan from the opposition, but only if that plan did not include Palestinian statehood.
The Yesha Council has embarked on a campaign to ensure that Palestinian statehood is not part of any sovereignty plan, even at the risk of losing US support for such annexation.
For weeks, it seemed as if Netanyahu would have to choose between the Israeli Right or US President Donald Trump, who is his closest diplomatic ally.
Last Thursday, in classic Netanyahu fashion, he pulled the kind of move that has kept him in power for eleven years – by finding an avenue he hoped would satisfy as many sides as possible.
IT WILL likely go like this. Netanyahu will rely on the formal public pledge he made in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech to support a demilitarized Palestinian state. That pledge was made when former US president Barack Obama was in power and was designed to satisfy an administration that wanted a two-state solution based on pre-1967 lines.
Netanyahu did not speak of the 1967 lines in the speech, but Obama accepted Netanyahu’s statehood pledge nonetheless. A statehood pledge that was good enough for Obama, would most certainly be satisfactory to Trump, who wants to offer the Palestinians less than what they would have received under Obama.
Netanyahu has spoken since then of his skepticism with regard to the feasibility of a Palestinian state, but has never formally renounced his Bar-Ilan speech.
When the Trump plan was unveiled in January he accepted it. The US has since publicly stated that Netanyahu has committed Israel to the plan.
Immediately after the Trump plan was unveiled in January, Blue and White Party head Benny Gantz, now the alternate prime minister, spoke of bringing the Trump plan to the Knesset, but never did. Nor are Gantz or Netanyahu likely to do so, unless absolutely forced to, because there is not enough support for the entirety of the plan within the government or the Knesset.
This is particularly true given the opposition to Palestinian statehood on the Israeli Right and the potential negative implications for right-wing politicians who would support such a plan.
It had begun to seem as if, therefore, Netanyahu would be hard-pressed to pass a sovereignty plan in July that also included Palestinian statehood within the same declaration.
A BITTER debate has already emerged within the Right as to whether sovereignty is worth the price of Palestinian statehood, even one under the optimal terms for Israel such as the one presented under the Trump plan.
In the Makor Rishon interview, Netanyahu clarified that he intends to divorce the two topics. The vote he would bring to the government, and thus presumably to the Knesset, would only include sovereignty and not Palestinian statehood.
“There won’t be a government decision with regard to the details of the plan or to the adoption of the plan,"  he told the paper. "Like I said in Washington, I am willing to engage in negotiations [with the Palestinians] on the basis of the Trump plan.”
It was a statement that gave a nod in the direction of the understanding that there is political support for individual sections of the Trump plan. Politicians could approve a plan with Palestinian statehood or a sovereignty plan, but it is unlikely to be able to approve the two of them together.
By stating his intention to push ahead solely with sovereignty at this point, Netanyahu has increased the chances of Knesset approval and at the same time, robbed the Right of one of its major battle points against the plan, just as it was picking up steam.
If the text to be voted upon does not mention Palestinian statehood, it would be much harder to argue against it.
NETANYAHU, however, did not rest solely with undermining that argument – he also went after the second battle line of the Right against the Trump plan: its map. Settlers have argued that Trump's map is locked and no changes can be made to it. They have secured the support of the Yamina Party in that battle by noting that the map published with the Trump plan has dangerous elements.
True, it would place 30% of the West Bank within Israel’s sovereign borders, an unheard of offer in the annals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But settlers have argued that the devil is in the details and that the plan would also create conditions for a de-facto building freeze and the destruction of at least 15 settlements.
In the Makor Rishon interview, Netanyahu also clarified that the Trump map, now under review by a joint US-Israeli committee, is not final. It was a statement that Likud Minister Ze’ev Elkin echoed in an interview Sunday morning with Army Radio.
And it’s a statement that significantly weakens settler opposition to the Trump sovereignty plan.
Yesha Council head David Elhayani, who campaigned on Netanyahu’s behalf, has been one of the most outspoken opponents of the Trump plan, precisely on the issue of the map and Palestinian statehood. Elhayani told The Jerusalem Post that the council “wouldn’t be satisfied with declarations, only with actions.”
But from here on, it will be harder for opponents of the plan to effectively garner supports with the question of Palestinian statehood temporarily off the table and the details of the map still to be unveiled.
If what Netanyahu told Makor Rishon proves true, he has likely earned himself a brief reprieve from the right-wing campaign against the Trump map – but only a brief one.
The most burning issue for all those who want to see the West Bank settlements annexed is that application of sovereignty should be done now, or most certainly in July.
If a good sovereignty plan is not put forward and voted on at that point, Netanyahu will find it increasingly more difficult to effectively apply his usual brand of magic to quell opposition – particularly if he intends to maintain his mantle as the leader of the Right.