Placing annexation in Trump’s hands will cost Netanyahu at the ballot box

The question of whether the country is going to its fourth cycle of elections in two years is a cliff-hanger political drama that changes by the hour.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara vote at a Jerusalem polling station on March 2  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara vote at a Jerusalem polling station on March 2
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It might be true that the fate of West Bank annexation is entirely in the White House’s hands.
It’s just that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can’t run with that as his campaign slogan and hope to retain his position as the leader of the Right, which until now has been his strongest base and best calling card.
The question of whether the country is going to its fourth cycle of elections in two years is a cliff-hanger political drama that changes by the hour.
The tension has risen as the days beat down to the August 25 deadline, by which the government must be dissolved if it fails to pass a budget.
One possible life vest might emerge as early as Wednesday, with a bill by MK Zvi Hauser (Derech Eretz) to extend the budget until December 3.
Should it pass, it could resurrect both Netanyahu and with it, any hope of annexation.
But Netanyahu has left nothing to chance and has already emerged with a number of videos and slogans that sound very much like he is already on the campaign trail.
Among them are the few sound bites he gave to Channel 20 on Monday – in an exclusive interview akin to those he did during the election – in which he defined himself a “strong right-wing leader.”
Then he added, “Remove me and you will remove the Right.”
Netanyahu was commenting on the question of whether or not he could continue to govern while standing trial. But he might as well have said, “Vote for me, not for Yamina Party head Naftali Bennett.”
In each election, Netanyahu has taken votes from right-wing parties, particularly those led by Bennett, by besting him in the battle for hearts and minds of the Right.
But the election hasn’t started and already he is bleeding votes to Bennett. One Channel 13 poll last week had Netanyahu at 29 mandates, down from 36, and Bennett at 19, a drastic increase from 5.
One minute after characterizing himself as a right-wing leader to Channel 20, Netanyahu said the one line that no right-winger likes to hear: Washington is in charge of one of the Right’s most important policy agendas – the annexation of West Bank settlements.
To shore up his credential as the leader of the Right, Netanyahu then listed his right-wing scorecard: the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, Golan Heights sovereignty and US recognition of the legality of West Bank settlements.
It truly is impressive, but also meaningless without sovereignty. It’s akin to making it to third base in a tied baseball game, without ever reaching home plate by the inning’s end because the other batters struck out. It was good for a moment, but didn’t help you in the game.
There is no question that elections have been good for supporters of Judea and Samaria, particularly those who favor sovereignty.
Major building projects that were taboo in the past are back on the table, such as Ma’aleh Adumim’s E1 and east Jerusalem’s Givat Hamatos.
More significantly, the elections made annexation an acceptable part of the diplomatic discourse. Netanyahu hinted at it in the first election, promised to annex the settlements and secured US recognition of the legality of settlements in the second.
Then in the third, Netanyahu received a US promise to support Israeli sovereignty over 30% of the West Bank. Following that feat, he received his highest ever voter scorecard, bringing the Likud up to 36 seats.
When he finally formed a government he pledged to execute sovereignty. It’s just that he never did so.
If the government falls, Netanyahu will have to go to elections with that promise unfulfilled. Even if he manages to wrangle a symbolic sovereignty vote during elections, it would still need to be authenticated by approval from the new government.
If Netanyahu is now stating that annexation can only happen with Washington’s approval, when failure to secure it comes at such a high electoral cost, why would he risk US ire later?
If victorious in the fourth elections, Netanyahu would be forming a new government, only to enter the same waiting game: Will US President Donald Trump approve or not approve annexation?
But by the time Netanyahu can turn to Washington for annexation approval, he might be facing the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, whose answer is expected to be no.
Effectively – unless Netanyahu backtracks from his Washington green-light line – he has already told the right-wing voters that annexation can only happen if Trump wins, otherwise, it is already a lost cause.
In some ways, sovereignty supporters would do better to get tickets to the US and canvass door to door for Trump, or maybe join a Trump phone bank, if they want to keep sovereignty hope alive.
But the right wing is the wrong voter pool to which one peddles a Washington-dependent policy. They are precisely the voter base that wants an Israeli prime minister with the skill, cunning and courage to oppose Washington while still maintaining good ties. In the worst-case scenario, they would rather see a showing of Israeli diplomatic independence, even if it means a break with Washington, than to lose ground on a significant diplomatic policy issue like sovereignty.
Voters would have to ask themselves if Netanyahu didn’t stand firm against Washington in the last six weeks, why would he do it later. Then there is a second question, if already he was going to risk a fourth election with a budget battle with Blue and White, why not have taken a similar risk with annexation?
Though annexation of the West Bank settlements would have a significant impact on the country, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has not been high on the public’s priority list.
The most significant issue in the coming election will likely be the COVID-19 pandemic, for which Netanyahu has already received a failing grade from the public.
Given the high COVID-19 rates in Israel, the large number of unemployed and the sudden economic dip, Netanyahu will have a difficult time regaining public confidence.
Then there is the actual ability to govern itself, which is in question, given that Netanyahu has failed twice to form a government. Once he did, he wasn’t able to hang onto it for more than three months.
With the southern and northern borders heating up on top of the pandemic, to say nothing of the possible impact on the country’s overall economic rating, it is hard to chalk a fourth election up to success.
Netanyahu’s overall battle will largely be fought among the country’s centrist voters, where all these topics will be the subject of endless debate.
The Right is one of the few arenas where the issue of sovereignty matters and it is here that he needs it most. Right voters could view sovereignty as the largest of the existential questions facing Israel, even during a pandemic.
They are also the ones, however, who are most vulnerable to Bennett.
Not just because Netanyahu didn’t stand up to Trump and approve sovereignty, but because since taking political office in 2013, Bennett has led everyone to believe that he would have no problem defying Washington.
On top of that, Bennett, unlike Netanyahu, has public confidence when it comes to handling COVID-19.
Unless the pro-sovereignty supporter holds that the issue must be done in conjunction with Washington, Netanyahu has little to offer them that Bennett cannot.
Not even his tight relationship with Trump will be in play, because Trump might not be in the White House.
If Netanyahu doesn’t want to continue to bleed right-wing voters to Bennett, he has to give up the “it’s all in Washington’s hands” argument and find a better spin.