Even if Trump’s peace plan released now, Area C is still a battleground

Even if the plan is not published, Netanyahu cannot make any annexation moves, because an interim government cannot apply sovereignty. So the baton of action is with Defense Minister Naftali Bennett.

Palestinian boys inspect a house that was demolished by Israeli forces in al-Khader village near Bethlehem, in the West Bank December 16, 2019. (photo credit: MUSSA QAWASMA/REUTERS)
Palestinian boys inspect a house that was demolished by Israeli forces in al-Khader village near Bethlehem, in the West Bank December 16, 2019.
Let’s say US President Donald Trump does release his peace plan, known as the "Deal of the Century," prior to the Israeli elections.
It would generate immense debate and empower already entrenched parties, but do little to achieve pragmatic actions on the ground when it comes to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The absence of an Israeli government would mean that no negotiations could actually occur with the Palestinians, because there is no Israeli government to participate in those talks. And that, of course, assumes that the Palestinians would want to hold talks, something they are unlikely to do, having already rejected the plan sight unseen.
Even in a fantasy scenario where both Israelis and Palestinians loved it, and talks would be possible, an interim government would not have the power to act. At best, the plan’s publication could end speculation about the Trump administration’s position vis-à-vis the West Bank and Jerusalem by further clarifying the US position on Palestinian statehood and its projected idea of Israel’s final territorial boundaries.
Such clarity would help empower candidates in the Israeli prime ministerial election campaign ahead of the March 2 vote, as well as contenders for the White House US presidential campaign ahead of the November 3 vote.
If it leaves a window open for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make good on his annexation pledge, it will help him generate support and possibly draw right-wing voters to the Likud, who might otherwise have gone to smaller parties.
If the plan appears to imperil Israel’s hold on Jerusalem or Area C of the West Bank, it would likely strengthen those parties on the grounds that they would be needed to help ensure that Netanyahu makes good on his annexation pledge once a government is formed.
Even if the Trump peace plan is not published when it comes to annexation, Netanyahu cannot make any moves, because under Israeli law, an interim government cannot apply sovereignty. Netanyahu can do little more than bask in any right-wing steps US officials take toward the recognition of Israeli rights in Judea and Samaria.
In this twilight-zone time, when right-wing rhetoric has become the norm but the diplomatic situation is frozen, the baton of action has moved to Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the New Right Party.
Bennett – like all defense ministers before him – is autocratically in charge of Area C of the West Bank, where all the settlements are located. That is because the area, including the settlements, is outside the boundaries of sovereign Israel and instead under IDF military rule.
That rule, of course, has been checked by the Prime Minister’s Office. In the past, most defense ministers have been in the unenviable position of being the fall person for unpopular prime ministerial strategies.
Former defense ministers Ehud Barak, Moshe Ya’alon and Avigdor Liberman were all routinely politically attacked by the Israeli Right for actions that were essentially Netanyahu’s doing.
But Bennett is easily the most right-wing politician to hold the post of defense minister under Netanyahu, and he is doing so during an election cycle.
That means any time Netanyahu holds Bennett back from taking right-wing steps in Area C, he takes a potential hit at the ballot box.
Bennett cannot, of course, annex the area. But he can make policy decisions with regard to Jewish building and Palestinian construction, including demolitions. Those decisions could strengthen or weaken Israel's hold on the territory.
For the last decade, Area C has been one of the silent battlegrounds of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many Israelis and a large swatch of the international community have rarely paid attention to the internal territorial divisions of the West Bank to understand how and why Area C is significant.
The land, which makes up 60% of the West Bank, comprises most of its undeveloped territory. It is desired by both Israelis and Palestinians for inclusion in the final borders of their states.
For Israelis and Palestinians engaged with Area C, the success or failure of their statehood ambitions rises and falls on the acquisition of every rock and hilltop.
Policies set by Bennett, largely unchecked by Netanyahu, can impact that battle, including his renewed push to stymie Palestinian development there with a campaign to halt illegal Palestinian building.
When Bennett speaks publicly, as he did last week, of the “battle for Area C,” he is not just parroting empty rhetoric, but seizing a small window of opportunity to make his mark.