Why is Netanyahu risking annexation with his trial on the horizon?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: There are more questions than answers if the prime minister is pushing sovereignty for his legacy or trying to deflect attention from his trial.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu – is annexation more a political interest than a legacy issue? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu – is annexation more a political interest than a legacy issue?
With the July 1 date looming when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could, under his coalition agreement with the Blue and White Party, bring an annexation decision for a vote in the cabinet or the Knesset, many are asking, why would he?
Why risk something that might lead to an eruption of Palestinian violence, a break with Jordan and an end to cooperation with the Gulf states? Why risk alienating the American Democratic Party and its presumptive presidential candidate, invite harsh censure from the international community and put at risk joint ventures worth hundreds of millions of shekels with the European Union?
And why go ahead with the plan especially when – as a Jerusalem Post poll showed this week – only 27% of the Israeli public is clearly behind it right now, including less than half (39%) of Likud voters? Throw into the mix the fact that half of the settlement leaders are opposed as well, and this all sends one scurrying in different directions looking for various explanations as to why this prime minister, whose long tenure has been marked more by caution than by recklessness, would risk the move.
Two explanations are generally proffered: legacy and his ongoing corruption trial.
FIRST, LET’S weigh the legacy thesis. According to this hypothesis, the 70-year-old Netanyahu, who at some point in time will have to ride off into the sunset, is looking for something to be remembered for, and what better way to leave his mark in the history books than to have the eastern expansion of Israel’s borders registered under his name?
The only problem with this thesis is that Netanyahu has never really mentioned this as a legacy line item.
One of the few times that Netanyahu publicly addressed his legacy was during an appearance in March 2018 at the Economic Club of Washington, DC.
“If you had your chance to write your own legacy now and say this is what you accomplished with your life, what would you want people to say about what you’ve done?” he was asked. After pausing uncharacteristically for a few seconds, Netanyahu responded: “Defender of Israel, liberator of its economy.”
Defender of Israel and liberator of its economy. No word there of “expander of Israel’s borders,” or “annexer of the settlements.”
Fast-forward to May 17 of this year, the day when – after 18 months of an endless election loop – Netanyahu was sworn in again in the Knesset as prime minister, this time as the rotating head of an emergency government.
Coronavirus mask in hand, he sat down at a table for an interview with Army Radio’s Yaakov Bardugo, during which a number of other reporters joined in. The prime minister, in an upbeat mood, alluded to the legacy issue when he insisted on being able to answer during the interview a question that was shouted out at him during the plenum: What have you done for the benefit of all Israelis?
“First of all,” he said, “I thwarted many terror threats that threatened all the citizens of Israel. In the years that I have served as Israel’s prime minister, we have had the lowest level of fatalities in the history of the state, including now.”
And he’s right, this country’s grisly terrorism statistics bear him out. In the 134 months since he took office on March 31, 2009 – through six different elections – some 163 people have been killed in Israel in terrorist attacks, an average of 14.6 people a year, or 1.2 a month.
By contrast, in the 118 months from the time Ehud Barak took office from Netanyahu in July 1999 to when Netanyahu moved back into the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street in 2009, 1,181 people were killed in Israel in terrorist attacks. That averages out to about 120.5 people a year, or 10 a month.
Now, some will argue that this comparison is unfair, that it is a comparison of apples with oranges, of the post-intifada era to the worst days of the Second Intifada. But that misses the point. The streets of Israel and the roads of the West Bank were far more secure during Netanyahu’s decade in power than in the decade previous. And it is not because during this period the Palestinians did not want, or try, to carry out attacks. Netanyahu’s policies – both military and diplomatic – prevented them from being able to do so as they had in the past.
The second thing Netanyahu said in that interview after the Knesset swearing-in ceremony was that “I thwarted, sometimes alone, Iran’s plan to arm itself with nuclear weapons, which would have threatened the destruction of all the citizens of Israel.”
Netanyahu believes that the actions he has taken, both on the international stage and through the years in covert actions no one knows about, has pushed Iran farther away from the nuclear threshold.
Yes, it is enriching uranium now, but the country is an international pariah whose economy is on the ropes and whose footprint abroad is shrinking, not getting larger.
“Defender of Israel,” he said in Washington. The security Israelis feel today – both in terms of no longer being fearful about putting their kids on a bus, and not at all concerned they will be incinerated by the Iranians – is how Netanyahu believes history will remember him. And he has a strong leg to stand on.
He also mentioned the other legacy category he mentioned in Washington, the “liberator of the economy,” in the Knesset post-swearing-in interview.
“The third thing is that I developed and turned Israel into a free economy for the benefit of all the citizens of the state. The fourth thing, I extracted the gas from the water that brings billions, and will bring hundreds of billions, into the state’s coffer for all the citizens of Israel.
“There are roads, and trains and overpasses, and tunnels, and cyber and international diplomatic connections that assist all the citizens of Israel.”
That, in Netanyahu’s mind, is also what he will be remembered for: untethering the economy, deregulating it, bringing – in the pre-corona era – astounding economic growth and reducing unemployment to historic levels, all of which contributed to an Israeli standard of living that is the envy of even some countries even in Europe.
Security and the economy – tellingly, those are what Netanyahu sees as his legacy issues. He made no mention, in the interview with Bardugo, of settlement annexation as something that would solidify his legacy.
Had extending Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and settlements been an issue that Netanyahu believed would earn accolades in future generations, then one would have assumed he would have worked on it during the last 134 months he has been in power, excluding the three years of his first term from 1996-1999.
Yet he didn’t.
Annexation first publicly rolled off Netanyahu’s lips during a television interview just prior to the April 2019 elections when he was battling with Naftali Bennett’s New Right Party for right-wing voters. Asked why he had not annexed anything until then, he replied: “Who says we won’t do that? We’re on the way.... The next term will be fateful.”
Netanyahu upped the ante before the September 2019 elections, holding a press conference just days before the nation went to the polls and saying that, if elected, he would annex the Jordan Valley and the settlements therein.
And finally, before the March elections this year, Netanyahu went even further and said that, if elected, he would annex what is allowed under US President Donald Trump’s peace framework: some 30% of Judea and Samaria.
This progression shows that, in Netanyahu’s mind, annexation seemed more of a political than a legacy issue.
WHICH LEAVES the other thesis about why he is pushing the plan now: that it has to do with his legal woes.
There have been a number of variations on this theme proffered over the last few months. The first is that all the talk of annexation, of extending Israeli sovereignty, deflects discussion of his indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
And, indeed, since his first day in court on May 24, there have been few headlines about his trial, and a plethora of stories dealing with the sovereignty plan (and the coronavirus).
Deflecting attention is a stronger argument before an election, when a candidate wants the voters to focus on his strengths, not his weaknesses. But now that the votes have been counted and the government is established, it is less pertinent.
Another argument that has been raised is that he is interested in giving the right wing something that it badly wants, so that it will rally to his support during the trial or if he is convicted. The problem with that argument is that this has not turned into a rallying cry for the Right. It has not fired up the imagination of the Right, even among those in the settlements who would seem to have the most to benefit from the move.
It also is hard to believe that this move would in any way sway the three judges in the Jerusalem District Court hearing his case. Are they really going to make up their minds based on whether Netanyahu annexes Efrat and Ariel?
The one argument that makes some sense regarding Netanyahu’s interest in annexation because of his legal situation is the following: If he goes ahead with the move, it could give more credibility to the argument he made just minutes before showing up to court, where he said that it was not Benjamin Netanyahu on trial but, rather, the entire right-wing camp.
“What is on trial today is an effort to frustrate the will of the people – the attempt to bring down me and the right-wing camp,” he declared.
“The goal is to bring down a strong prime minister from the right wing and thus keep the right-wing camp away from running the state for many years. By the way, they would not mind if some cooperative poodle came along from the Right – those are always around – but me, I am no poodle.
“I am not willing to adjust my policies to receive better media coverage, I am not prepared to uproot settlements, I am not willing to do all sorts of other things, and therefore I must be removed by any means.”
If he goes ahead and extends Israeli law under the plan – a move that surely no “poodle,” but only someone firmly on the Right, would carry out – then he can wave annexation when he argues that the court case is a bald attempt to derail a right-wing agenda. “I wanted to extend sovereignty,” he could then argue, “but they wanted to prevent me.”
Even with that argument in his briefcase, however, it is not clear how that helps Netanyahu’s lawyers defend him in court.•