The right-wing settlement movement’s opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex 30% of the West Bank has captured the headlines, mainly because of the bizarre sight of Israel’s most hard-core nationalistic group protesting a program to install Israeli sovereignty over parts of the Land of Israel, but it’s not the only sector of the public unhappy with the premier’s proposed moves.
According to an Israel Democracy Institute poll published last week, only 50% of the country supported Netanyahu’s annexation plans, due to commence on July 1. And when this figure is broken down, it’s clear that this support is even less solid. Only 25% of the public said they would support Israel going ahead unilaterally without the backing of the United States. Among Likud voters, this figure was not notably higher, with only 37.5% saying they would back Israel going it alone.
Given that Washington is clearly signaling it’s far from ready to give its go ahead for this fateful move – President Donald Trump does have rather more burning issues at present to resolve – the question has to be asked why Netanyahu seems so determined to press on with a plan that brings no real benefit to Israel and carries some very real dangers for the Jewish state.
The arguments against annexation are varied and convincing. Putting to one side the settler movement’s ideological (and some would say hysterical) opposition to the move, which is based on the fact that Trump’s “Deal of the Century” also vaguely promises a Palestinian state on around 70% of the West Bank four years down the line, annexation seriously endangers Israel’s standing in the international community and with its most important ally.
If Netanyahu goes ahead without Trump’s blessing, he risks antagonizing a US president not known for his concern for someone else’s priorities. As the State Department has reminded Jerusalem, annexation can take place only “in the context of the government of Israel agreeing to negotiate with the Palestinians.” Ignoring this caveat and proceeding to take just the part of the deal that suits Israel will not sit well with the intemperate White House president.
And then, of course, who knows how long the beleaguered Trump will remain in the White House? Netanyahu has recklessly placed all of Israel’s eggs in the basket of the most volatile and divisive president in modern US history. The prime minister’s sycophancy toward Trump and his earlier unprecedented undermining of Barack Obama’s Iranian nuclear deal has severely downgraded bipartisan support for Israel in Washington.
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has made it clear he opposes any annexation, telling Democratic Jewish donors that Israel needs to “stop the threat of annexation and stop settlement activity because it’ll choke off any hope of peace.”
The Democratic Majority for Israel warned of the extremely serious and long-term damage annexation would cause to the US-Israel alliance.
As conservative columnist Daniel Pipes noted in The New York Times, “simultaneously alienating both Mr. Trump and the Democrats requires real skill.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, meanwhile, is reportedly set to visit Jerusalem this week to warn of the crisis annexation would bring to Israel’s ties with Germany and the European Union. According to media reports, Maas will say that annexing the West Bank will force Germany to choose between its alliance with Israel and the rule of international law and the values of the EU.
It shouldn’t escape Jerusalem’s attention that Germany will assume the presidency of both the EU and the UN Security Council on July 1.
Closer to home, there’s the risk annexation brings to Israel’s peace agreement with Jordan – a deal that provides Israel with a vital strategic depth of almost 400 kilometers to the border with Iraq – and our behind-the-scenes anti-Iran coalition with moderate Sunni Arab countries, about which Netanyahu so proudly boasts.
Crucially, annexation would also spell the end of any hope of dialogue with the Palestinian Authority and could provide the spark for a third intifada, as the Palestinians realize they have nothing to lose.
Is it worth risking all this for a move that essentially does not change the daily facts of life on the ground?
The silence of Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi on this issue, given their roles as defense and foreign ministers, respectively, is stunning. Having broken their election promise not to serve under an indicted prime minister, they now seem prepared to throw another election pledge – to agree to annexation only as part of an internationally coordinated agreement – under the bus.
BACK IN 2008, Netanyahu so rightly said: “A prime minister who is neck-deep in investigations has no public or moral mandate to make crucial decisions.” By all accounts, deciding to annex 30% of the West Bank comes under the category of a crucial decision.
Other prime ministers made tough decisions that became their legacy: David Ben-Gurion’s declaration of statehood, Menachem Begin’s peace treaty with Egypt, Yitzhak Rabin’s Oslo Accords and the peace deal with Jordan, Ehud Barak’s withdrawal from Lebanon, Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
Despite being Israel’s longest-serving premier, Netanyahu has nothing in comparison on his resume. It’s hard to discount the suspicion that this fateful and unnecessary move for Israel has been devised to distract attention from Netanyahu’s only actual legacy: the sight of a sitting Israeli prime minister in court defending himself against charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.