What happened that caused Netanyahu's annexation blunder?

Analysis: Netanyahu had built up excitement throughout his political base in Israel that he was going to receive US authorization to annex Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu points to a map of the Jordan Valley (photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu points to a map of the Jordan Valley
(photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)
The settler leaders walked into the Blair House on Monday afternoon, about an hour after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had finished his first meeting with US President Donald Trump.
As they entered the white tent that the Secret Service had erected outside the official presidential guest house, Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Party, was finishing his own meeting with Trump back in the Oval Office.
Both men had come to Washington with similar ambitions. Netanyahu had built up excitement throughout his political base in Israel that he was going to receive US authorization to annex Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, a move that was supposed to help him solidify his leadership – tainted by his pending criminal trial – and maybe even sway voters to come back to the Right.
Gantz was hoping for a picture that would elevate him to the statesman status that only Netanyahu holds on Israel’s political field. He wanted a trip that would go off without a hitch, that would photograph well and that would make it seem like he could be Bibi.
Both were in for a surprise. Their visits to Washington did not go as planned. Netanyahu’s annexation promise came crashing down and Gantz’s visit was tainted by its own mishaps and power plays.
This description is based on conversations with officials both in Israel and in the US. It tries – as much as is possible – to describe what happened in Washington last Monday and Tuesday, and what went wrong particularly for Netanyahu and his now-delayed annexation plans.
Back to the settler leaders. Most of them had left Israel on Sunday night, following in the footsteps of the prime minister, who flew out of Ben-Gurion Airport earlier that day. There was Yisrael Gantz, head of the Binyamin Regional Council; Shlomo Ne’eman, head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council; Oded Revivi, mayor of Efrat; and David Elhayani, head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council and chairman of the powerful Yesha Council, the settlements’ governing authority.
The problem was that Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Regional Council, had also come to Washington. Dagan, a renegade among settler leaders, operates independently of the Yesha Council. His relations with Elhayani, for example, are known to be bad.
That is why when the first group coordinated its meeting with the prime minister’s staff, they said they would not come if Dagan was there. They were assured he wouldn’t be invited and that he would also not get his own private meeting later with Netanyahu.
Head of the Samaria Regional Council Yossi Dagan meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Washington, DC, January 28, 2020 (Photo Credit: Prime Minister's Office)
Head of the Samaria Regional Council Yossi Dagan meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Washington, DC, January 28, 2020 (Photo Credit: Prime Minister's Office)
The Elhayani-Ne’eman-Gantz-Revivi group arrived at the Blair House at about 2 p.m. and sat with Netanyahu for more than an hour. Tourism Minister Yariv Levin was also there. He had joined Netanyahu in Washington and participated in his meeting earlier that day with Trump.
Levin’s presence in America raised a number of eyebrows back in Israel. He is known for being a close Netanyahu ally when it comes to coalition politics, but his involvement in diplomatic affairs was not believed to be of great significance.
The meeting went well. Netanyahu told the group that he could not reveal any of the details of the plan before it was officially unveiled the following day. “I promised the president,” he said. Levin had a bunch of questions that seemed to the group as a way to gauge where they stood on different parts of the plan.
“What would you say about a Palestinian state?” Levin asked at one point. The prime minister tried to dismiss the notion.
“And what would you say about a freeze on some settlement construction?” Levin asked again, giving a hint to the part of the plan that bans – for the next four years – construction in 15 settlements that are in territory that would fall under the envisioned Palestinian state. Again, Netanyahu dismissed the idea.
The group finished its meeting with Netanyahu but did not leave the Blair House. The group stepped into a side room to work on the statement they were going to release to the media back in Israel.
After approximately 30 minutes, they walked over to the front door, but when they got there, they were shocked to see Dagan stepping inside. Despite the PMO’s promises to Elhayani, the Samaria Regional Council head was getting a private audience with the prime minister.
Elhayani was furious and made sure that the prime minister’s top staff knew it. A few hours later, the group held a dinner meeting with a senior Trump official and received a bit more insight into the plan. During that meeting, the official asked the Yesha group not to come out and attack the plan. The settlement leaders walked away understanding that if they stayed quiet and the Palestinians rejected the plan as expected, annexation could move along.
Elhayani was still upset from what had happened at the Blair House. At 3 a.m. in DC, he went on Israel’s KAN radio and blasted the plan – and Netanyahu personally. “We came to Washington to support Netanyahu and to bless Trump. But after we processed the plan, we understand that it includes the establishment of a Palestinian state,” the Yesha leader said. “I am shocked that Netanyahu would agree to this.”
It was a rare public rebuke of the prime minister from someone who was believed to be a political ally, on the eve of what Netanyahu was calling a “historic day” for the State of Israel. But Elhayani was not stopping. The chance meeting with Dagan the day before had him fuming.
By this point, Netanyahu was wide awake. So were the rest of the Yesha leaders who had come to Washington.
Across the street from the Blair House, Trump was apparently also awake, although not like the settler leaders thought – because of Elhayani’s interview. The day before, news broke about John Bolton and the possibility that he would testify in the ongoing impeachment proceedings against the president. As one official explained: With all due respect to Elhayani, Trump had far greater concerns that morning.
Either way, emotions were running high on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue. Trump was feeling under threat from his former national security adviser; Netanyahu from the Yesha Council.
A few minutes before noon, Netanyahu arrived at the White House for the ceremony. After Trump’s opening remarks, he took to the podium and declared that Israel accepted the plan and would soon begin its implementation.
“Israel will apply its laws to the Jordan Valley, to all the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, and to other areas that your plan designates as part of Israel and which the United States has agreed to recognize as part of Israel,” the prime minister said.
Immediately after the event at 1:46 p.m., Netanyahu’s spokesman Yonatan Urich tweeted: “Sovereignty over all settlements on Sunday.”
As Urich tweeted, Netanyahu was meeting with the Israeli media back at the Blair House. There, he told reporters that he would bring a proposal to the cabinet on Sunday to immediately apply Israeli law and annex all of the Jordan Valley and the Israeli settlements spread out across Judea and Samaria – both part of the 30% of the West Bank given to Israel in Trump’s plan.
Shortly after Netanyahu finished his briefing though, at about 3:30 p.m., Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and the plan’s architect, went on CNN and said that he was not aware of immediate annexation plans.
“I don’t believe that’s going to happen this weekend, at least not as far as I know,” he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
This was apparently news to Netanyahu, and he wasn’t willing to take any chances. Urich was ordered to immediately delete his tweet.
Kushner was upset. Ambassadors from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman had come to the ceremony at the White House. Netanyahu’s annexation vow made them feel like they had been fooled into participating.
But the question remained – what had happened? In meetings since the annexation fiasco, Netanyahu has told Likud members that he never would have gone to Washington without first securing a promise that he would be able to annex.
“This was an attack directed against Netanyahu,” said one senior member of Israel’s Right, explaining that failure to follow through with annexation could end up costing Netanyahu the election. “It hurts him in his base constituency and could lead voters to stay home or to vote for Yamina.”
This might be the case assuming that Netanyahu had a promise from the Americans that he could move ahead with annexation. While this is the narrative that Israeli officials are pushing, there are indications to the contrary.
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, for example, met with a number of Israeli politicians the weekend before the peace plan was rolled out. On Friday, January 24, he met with Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and fellow Yamina Party members Ayelet Shaked and Bezalel Smotrich.
The three walked away understanding that annexation could only take place after the joint Israeli-US committee convened, but that it was something that could happen within a few weeks, or months at the most. Definitely before the US presidential election in November.
If Netanyahu knew this then why did he announce immediate annexation? Officially, both Jerusalem and Washington are claiming that there was a technical misunderstanding when it came to what “immediate” meant.
Netanyahu seemed to understand that it was days. The Americans understood that it would take more time – weeks or months.
One explanation for what happened could be that Netanyahu knew this, but thought he could get away with moving faster and that the administration would not stop him. If so, he gambled wrong.
Another option is that the Bolton news rattled the administration and that the situation changed throughout the day due to matters that had nothing to do with Israel.
“In these type of events, things often change as they move along,” one former veteran diplomat explained.
Israeli officials admitted that such a mistake – if there was one – was uncharacteristic of Netanyahu, known to be a cautious leader who has shied away from unilateral moves or military adventures.
“This is a mystery,” said another former official who is familiar with the inner workings of the Prime Minister’s Office.
And Gantz? He, too, had his mistakes. The first was the way he handled the trip to begin with. About a week before the announcement of the event at the White House, Friedman spoke to Gantz and asked him if he would be willing to come to DC to attend the roll out of the peace plan. Due to the sensitive timing – a peace plan unveiling during an Israeli election – it was important for the Americans that Gantz be there. This way, it would help quell criticism that it was a political event.
But then came the video of Vice President Mike Pence inviting Netanyahu at their meeting following the Holocaust memorial on January 23 in Jerusalem. There, Pence said that Netanyahu had suggested that the US also invite Gantz.
In Blue and White, the party leaders were furious, with some recommending that Gantz stay home. Instead, he decided to try and use the situation to get a private meeting with Trump, which the Americans approved. But when they thought that he would stay in town another day for the peace plan, they were wrong. Gantz decided to return immediately to Israel for what was supposed to be a Knesset debate on Netanyahu’s immunity request.
That was strike one against Gantz.
Strike two for the Americans was when Gantz brought his top campaign adviser, Ronen Tzur, with him to Washington. On Monday morning, just a few hours before Gantz’s meeting with Trump, an old tweet of Tzur’s resurfaced. In it, he had referred to the president as “Donald Adolf Trump.”
The Americans couldn’t believe it. Here was Gantz on his first visit to Trump, and part of his official delegation was a man who in 2017 had basically called the president a Nazi. The Americans made it clear that there was no way Tzur was coming anywhere near the White House that day.
Strike three came after Gantz returned to Israel. On Wednesday – January 29 – he appeared at a security conference in Tel Aviv and said that Blue and White would bring the entire Trump peace plan to a Knesset vote.
Why? To embarrass Netanyahu. The plan includes the establishment of a Palestinian state – and if the entire Knesset is asked to vote, there is no way Likud would be able to support it.
This was a flagrant politicization of a plan the Americans had worked hard on for three years and were trying to advance. Such cynicism, from a former IDF chief of staff, was not expected.