Netanyahu will have to defend his failure to annex the West Bank

Now that the race to April 9 has begun, Likud and Bayit Yehudi politicians will jockey for who a better record when it comes to Judea and Samaria.

Bayit Yehudi party head, Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the Givat Asaf outpost (Credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
The campaign for the heart of the pro-settler vote in the coming election will likely rise or fall in large part on the issue of West Bank annexation.
Already last week, with an eye to the government’s fall, Bayit Yehudi Party head and Education Minister Naftali Bennett issued a direct challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on this issue.
“One of the key core elements of our platform is to apply Israeli sovereignty on Israel [Area C of the West Bank]. However, this will not happen in the current political situation. We have eight seats; we need to be stronger to affect our policies,” Bennett said.
He carefully chose his backdrop to throw down the gauntlet by standing in a dramatic setting that underscored a number of Netanyahu’s failures during his fourth government: the Givat Assaf outpost.
The small community is one of over 70 that have yet to be authorized by Netanyahu’s right-wing government. Bennett, the prime minister’s chief rival for the pro-settler vote, made the visit just days after a terror attack that claimed two lives at a bus stop just outside the community gates.
Bennett of course, mentioned the attack. Netanyahu might have a reputation as Mr. Security, but on the ground, settlers have felt anything but secure.
Now that the race to April 9 has begun, Likud and Bayit Yehudi politicians will jockey for who has a better record when it comes to Judea and Samaria.
NETANYAHU HAS hardly been asleep at the wheel in the last three years. He can of course point to a nice check list of successes.
He built Amichai – the first entirely new settlement in 25 years – and agreed to build another one at the site of the Gilad Farm outpost. Both communities are outside the settlement blocs, a term his government has successfully erased from the diplomatic lexicon. In the last two years, he has advanced or approved plans for over 10,000 housing units in Judea and Samaria and issued over 6,000 construction tenders.
Netanyahu was particularly strong on Hebron, where he authorized construction of an apartment complex and allowed the Jewish community to move into two adjoining buildings it had purchased called Beit Rachel and Leah.
During this last government the Knesset approved the Settlement Regulation Law that would retroactively legalize settler homes on private Palestinian property. It also gave a preliminary nod of approval to a bill that would legalize the outposts. The security cabinet also created a committee to legalize those outposts.
But the Settlement Regulation Law is now under adjuration before the High Court of Justice and has not yet been implemented. The outpost bill is now likely frozen as a result of the election and the committee has yet to complete its work.
Both the law and the bill were the result of private initiatives, which appeared to only have grudging support from Netanyahu.
He took no steps to build in an area of the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement known as E1. Nor did he repeal the legislation that forbade the rebuilding of the four settlements in northern Samaria that were destroyed during the 2005 Disengagement.
Most significantly, Netanyahu refused to support any of the sovereignty drives. This included areas of the West Bank such as Gush Etzion and Ma’aleh Adumim, considered to be part of Israel’s final borders in any final status arrangement with the Palestinians.
A KEY COMPONENT of Netanyahu’s reelection campaign will of course be his strong relationship with US President Donald Trump. He will likely use those tight ties to explain that Trump’s supportive stance toward settlement building is best protected if he remains in office.
But he has already shown the pro-settler camp the limits of that support: good for building, but bad for legislative changes to the status quo that are increasingly important to the right-wing, such as annexation.
At the end of the last election, Netanyahu held a famous press conference in the Har Homa neighborhood of east Jerusalem, to underscore this record with regard to settlement building.
It was part of a number of tactics that allowed him to wrest four mandates from the Bayit Yehudi Party, bringing them down to eight, promoting the belief that only a strong Likud would ensure settler building.
But a solely pro-settlement building platform is so, stuck in the past of 2015 and tied to the former Obama administration.
In January 2017, on the first Sunday of the Trump presidency, the Bayit Yehudi Party attempted to push through an initiative to annex Ma’aleh Adumim. They told Netanyahu that it had to be done before Trump settled into office and set a standard of what was permissible and what was not. Netanyahu argued that it was best to wait.
Last Sunday, Bennett stated the obvious. Those who support Judea and Samaria are tired of waiting. Netanyahu at the helm might still be good for the country, but a right-wing government under him can only be effective if the Bayit Yehudi Party grows in stature to push through policies that Netanyahu lacks the diplomatic courage to support.