Is Netanyahu’s annexation talk payback for Trump’s new Iran policy?

Bolton’s departure, coming on the heels of Trump’s comments about meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, is one more ominous sign for Netanyahu.

Benjamin Netanyahu announces that if reelected, he will extend Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, September 10 2019 (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Benjamin Netanyahu announces that if reelected, he will extend Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, September 10 2019
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Would it have hurt US President Donald Trump so much to wait until after Israel’s election on Tuesday before hinting at easing American sanctions against Iran, or summarily firing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s man in Washington?
What, after all, is one week between friends?
Particularly when for Netanyahu it could mean the difference between political life and death, given that Israel heads to the polls on September 17.
Yet it was clearly seven days too many for Trump, who on Tuesday fired his National Security Adviser John Bolton - infamous for his hawkish views, particularly on Iran. Bolton is widely believed to have been behind the US decision to pull out of the Iran deal.
Bolton’s departure, coming on the heels of Trump’s comments about meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, is one more ominous sign for Netanyahu that the White House could be softening its hardline Iran policy.
This point was underscored by Trump’s “We’ll see what happens” response to a reporter’s question about scaling back sanctions on Iran.
At the Jerusalem Post-Maariv Conference on Wednesday, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman bluntly noted what many are thinking: Netanyahu has lost his greatest strategic asset, his relationship with Trump.
Bolton’s removal means “the end of all the coordination from a basic perspective between Netanyahu and the White House on the Iranian nuclear program,” Liberman added.
It’s a harsh blow for Netanyahu, who has made his relationship with Trump one of the centerpieces of his election campaign.
But a cloud of discord with Washington can have positive side benefits for a prime minister who is trying to crown himself king of the Right for the fifth time in 10 years.
It can play well with those who fear that Israeli leaders are Washington’s patsies. Voters who saw Netanyahu stand tough against former US President Barack Obama want to know he can do the same with Trump.
A tiff with Trump can free Netanyahu to take steps previously considered diplomatic suicide, but which are endearing to right-wing voters, such as annexation.
So it is that two deals close to Trump’s heart, one with Iran and one between Israelis and Palestinians, have intersected in some strange way with Israeli electoral politics.
As the election nears the finish line, a series of public actions that Netanyahu and Trump have taken almost make it seem - as if in the aftershock of a possibly soured romance - the two leaders are playing a strange game of diplomatic chess.
While Trump has issued zingers on Iran, Netanyahu has suddenly begun to talk clearly about West Bank annexation
It is almost as if Netanyahu is warning Trump that he cannot both make good with Iran and also go down in history as the man whose “Deal of the Century” resolved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That kind of tit-for-tat could explain how, after a decade in office in which he has made only vague hints about the subject, Netanyahu is suddenly the man with maps and a timeline when it comes to West Bank annexation, particularly with respect to the Jordan Valley.
There are many domestic and security reasons for Netanyahu to suddenly champion Jordan Valley sovereignty, as well as significant reasons why he has hesitated until now.
Diplomatic constraints have always made it difficult for Netanyahu to join the tsunami of right-wing voices calling for annexation. Under past US presidencies it would have put Israel-American ties on ice to engage in such talk, as unilateral annexation would have killed any chance of a peace deal for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
However, in the absence of Trump’s publication of the “Deal of the Century,” it has almost seemed as if sovereignty, or at least partial sovereignty, would not harm the peace plan Washington was envisioning.
It makes annexation talk particularly tantalizing in an election season where Netanyahu is losing support to parties on his right who have embraced sovereignty, such and Yamina and Otzma.
Changes in the political scene over the last four of five years have created a new reality in which an annexation pledge has become a necessity for any candidate seeking right-wing support.
So it was that on Tuesday night, for the first time ever, Netanyahu put forward his own sovereignty plan. For the prime minister, it is one of a series of mea culpas when it comes to right-wing issues.
When Trump entered office in January 2017, right-wing politicians urged Netanyahu to seize the moment to unilaterally annex the major West Bank city of Ma’aleh Adumim. They argued that those first weeks of the Trump administration, before the US president had set any policy, provided a unique opportunity for Israeli unilateral action.
Netanyahu squashed those attempts, not wanting to create friction with the new president by getting ahead of Trump’s policies or taking steps that would restrict his sphere of action in the Middle East.
On Tuesday night, in the shadow of Trump’s talk of a Rouhani meeting,  Netanyahu no longer seemed concerned about what harm he might cause the “Deal of the Century,” as he swore not to make that same mistake twice. He pledged unilateral annexation of the Jordan Valley and the northern area of the Dead Sea.
Netanyahu also spoke of his intention to extend that annexation to all of the West Bank settlements, but said that out of respect for Trump he would wait until after his peace plan was unveiled to take further action. He would do this, Netanyahu said, with an eye toward coordinating that annexation with Trump.
Netanyahu called on voters to see support for the Likud as a mandate for the West Bank annexation.
His words were designed both to stop Likud voters who support annexation from abandoning the party for Yamina, and to sway Yamina voters to head to the Likud.
They were also aimed at Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party, which has spoken of the importance of retaining the Jordan Valley without promising sovereignty.
Media hype has included speculations that Netanyahu planned to announce the imminent annexation of the Jordan Valley. The media further speculated that this would be followed by a supportive announcement from Trump. Both of those speculations came to naught, thereby almost making it seem as if Netanyahu had failed, before he had even gotten out of the gate.
To make matters worse, what followed instead was an announcement that Bolton had been fired.
In an interview with Channel 20, Netanyahu said he had informed the US of his announcement with regard to the Jordan Valley and they had not condemned it.
In two separate speeches on Wednesday, Trump said that lack of US condemnation of the plan was a sign of acceptance, particularly with reports that the White House did not believe Netanyahu’s words had interfered with its peace plan.
But if so, one has to ask why Netanyahu is waiting to annex the Jordan Valley, especially since its retention by Israel is viewed as critical to ensuring the country’s security, particularly in light of Iranian regional aggression.
On Wednesday night, Netanyahu said that Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit had told him that he could not bring the matter to the Knesset for a vote prior to the election.
A Knesset vote, however, is not necessarily needed to initially annex territory. So why not hold a vote at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday to apply sovereignty to the Jordan Valley, as a sign that Netanyahu means business when he talks about sovereignty? Former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, who heads the Yamina Party, stated publicly Wednesday that such a vote would be legal.
Should Netanyahu lose the election, and Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz is given the first option to form a government, then this Sunday could be Netanyahu’s last to make his mark in this way.
If he wins the election, the vote stands. If he loses, a legal debate may ensue regarding the authenticity of such a vote from a lame duck government, but then the new government would in any event be forming a different policy regarding Judea and Samaria.
Netanyahu has not hesitated to place authorizing a Jordan Valley outpost on the agenda, in spite of its apparent political ramifications. The creation of a new settlement is significant even if it pales in comparison to sovereignty.
The only reason to hesitate on annexation would truly be if, in spite of Netanyahu’s boasts to the contrary, he lacked Trump’s support and was not yet willing to risk the president’s ire in that way.
The reason to hesitate would be if Netanyahu’s words on annexation were a shot across the bow to Trump - to let him know what the prime minister might do, should the US president suddenly start courting Tehran.