Will Netanyahu put the breaks on annexation? - analysis

Listening to the debate that has swirled around Israel’s annexation plans, it often doesn’t sound as if the choices are that stark.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 30, 2020.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 30, 2020.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
In a way it was a politician on the far-Left of Israel’s political map that best summed up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conundrum when it comes to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“When talking about annexation, one must remember that there is an occupation,” Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman told the Knesset on Monday during a public debate.
“Stopping the annexation must not normalize the occupation. Don’t make it [occupation] a thing you can live with,” she cautioned.
What she meant was, moving forward, don’t choose the route of the status quo. For Touma-Sliman this means choose a two-state resolution to the conflict at the pre-1967 lines. For Netanyahu, it means anything but that. In short Netanyahu can execute an annexation plan that involves all or some of the settlements. Or he can retain the status quo by which Israel retains military and civilian control over Area C of the West Bank.
Listening to the debate that has swirled around Israel’s annexation plans, it doesn’t often sound as if the choices are that stark.
On the Israeli Right, the debate has focused on the question of whether or not Israel should support Palestinian statehood. After that it has delved into the contours of the annexation map and the question of whether or not Netanyahu should secure US support for annexation.
In the center and centrist Right of the Israeli political map, the argument has centered on whether or not a symbolic or partial annexation could occur, such as the application of sovereignty to the settlement blocs.
Those who oppose any annexation, from the center to the far-Left, have argued that it would destroy any possibility a negotiated two-state solution and render impossible any future peace process with the Palestinians.
They have warned that annexation would ignite the Middle East, create another Palestinian intifada, destabilize Jordan and possibly lead to the annulment of the country’s peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt.
Annexation, they have contended, could cause the Palestinian Authority to collapse, leaving the IDF once more in the position of governing and securing Palestinian lives. It’s a move that annexation critics warn could hasten the creation of a one-state reality based on an apartheid system.
Lastly, of course, is the specter of international isolation and condemnation, including the downgrading of diplomatic ties and sanctions, including at the United Nations.
The risk list is so long and realistic sounding that one could almost wonder if it is only political expediency that makes Netanyahu persist in his annexation drive. It’s an argument that fits the negative Netanyahu stereotype of a politician so solely driven by personal interest that he would take an existential gamble with the country’s welfare.
The large scope of the debate helps support that theory because it gives the appearance that Netanyahu has a wealth of choices when it comes to resolving the conflict. Therefore only political expediency or ideology, has made Netanyahu appear hell-bent on the pursuit of annexation at all costs.
In reality, however, Netanyahu is faced with only three start choices; he can pursue a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines, he can retain the status quo or he can annex. That is it.
Annexation critics often speak loudly about how annexation would destroy the peace process, but they have failed to mention that the last serious round of direct negotiations occurred in 2008 and the last attempt at a process was back in 2014.
The peace process which annexation critics reference is the very one that every Israeli leader, save from former prime minister Ehud Olmert, has rejected. This is a resolution to the conflict based on the pre-1967 lines. The demand that Israel reject annexation in the name of peace, have mostly all been calls for Israel to accept the pre-1967 lines as its border with only some very minor changes.
These would most likely include Modi’in Illit, Beitar Illit, half of Gush Etzion, not including Efrat, and half of Ma’aleh Adumim, not including E1. There might possibly be some other isolated points near the Green Line, but that would be it. It would also mean splitting Jerusalem and possibly leaving the Old City with its Temple Mount and Western Wall under a Palestinian state.
It’s not just Israeli leaders that have rejected that scenario, but the Israeli public itself. Only two Knesset parties totaling 18 seats between them – the Joint List and Meretz – support a two-state resolution at the pre-1967 lines. The remainder that back two-states, believe that Israel should retain a larger swath of territory.
Not even former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who opened the door to the era of peace negotiations with the Oslo Accords, wanted a pre-1967 line solution.
In the five months since Trump unveiled his peace plan, which ignores the pre-1967 lines and calls for a Palestinian state on only 70% of the West Bank, no one has put forward a third peace alternative that Israel could live with.
In a virtual debate hosted by the IDC Herzliya on Tuesday night, former National Security Council official, Eran Lerman charged that this marriage between the peace process and the pre-1967 lines has stymied the peace process for the last two decades.
Netanyahu is among those who has repeatedly rejected any talk of the pre-1967 lines. When he considers the pros and cons of annexation, he has only two options: the status quo or sovereignty.
In some ways, he could quietly back away from annexation in favor of the status quo. After two decades, many Israelis have come to believe that the status quo is sustainable and possibly even preferable to annexation, particularly when weighed against the very long list of risks.
It would be hard to fault him for choosing what would be a safe path, particularly at a moment when the country is overwhelmed by the COVID-19 crisis.
But the problem is the vast gulf between the public understanding of the status quo and its realities. The status quo involves military rule over Palestinian and Israelis civilian affairs; a situation that deprives both Israelis and Palestinians of full rights.
More to the point, the risks that have been associated with annexation, exist every day with the status quo. Every flash point of violence in the West Bank has the potential to create the same crisis situation as annexation. The same is true with settlement building, often seen in any event as a de-facto form of annexation. Then of course there is the whole issue of the Temple Mount, where violence often threatens to spark a religious war. Relations between Israel and Jordan have been on ice for years. The starkest evidence of that is Jordan’s insistence in 2019 that Israel must leave the Island of Peace. Its presence there had for years been a symbol of cooperation between the two countries.
The International Criminal Court is already weighing whether it has jurisdiction to try Israelis for war crimes. The Arab states, aside from Jordan and Egypt, might be talking to Israel, but no one has offered to normalize ties.
The difference between the status quo and annexation when it comes to risks is so slim, that the more pertinent question for Netanyahu is: What does he stand to gain?
Here the pendulum swings in favor of the Trump plan, which as he described on Tuesday to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a phone call as creative, realistic and absent of the “failed formulas” of the past.
It is a plan that offers him an option to go down in history as the prime minister who expanded Israel’s sovereign borders and offers the only blue-print for a two-state resolution to the conflict that he could live with.
From where Netanyahu is sitting, in spite of the annexation delay, he has many reasons to execute sovereignty under Trump’s plan and very few reasons to opt for the status quo.