If Netanyahu opts for elections, will West Bank annexation be lost?
With every failed Knesset vote and every violent rally outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence, one can almost hear an imaginary hammer driving nails into the coffin of Israeli right-wing aspirations to annex West Bank settlements.
The daily chaos sparked by the spiraling COVID-19 pandemic has given the appearance that after 11 years of almost total control over Israel’s government, Netanyahu has lost his grip.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu’s government failed to block legislation that banned gay conversation therapy after the Blue and White party broke with the coalition to join the opposition in blocking the bill.
It’s presumed that if Netanyahu were to move forward now on annexation, it would generate further chaos in the coalition given the opposition from Blue and White. Technically, under the coalition agreement between the two parties, Netanyahu is permitted to move forward without Blue and White. Pragmatically, however, the party could retaliate legislatively, creating an upheaval that could lead to the coalition’s downfall.
For Netanyahu to regain control of the coalition, he cannot afford steps that would generate such controversy within his government.
If he moved forward with annexation, it would be with the likely understanding that it would collapse his government and lead to new elections.
Already on Wednesday night, while Israeli media speculated that Netanyahu now wants to declare elections, annexation was not on anyone’s lips.
One theory is that elections would improve Netanyahu’s legal options in advance of his upcoming January corruption trial, because it would give him another opportunity to place the Justice Ministry under his control.
Or maybe he would do so because strategically, the current government is simply too unwieldy – and he is a politician who prefers autocratic control.
ELECTIONS ARE a risky choice; Netanyahu’s standing is low in the polls; and it is perceived by many to be in the country’s best interest, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, for Netanyahu to find a way to regain control of the government.
Such a choice, however, has negative implications on one of his major policy drives: the annexation of West Bank settlements.
If Netanyahu chooses government stability over elections, this de-facto also means that he cannot move forward on sovereignty in any meaningful way.
Unless something happens soon, “the window of opportunity for sovereignty will likely have closed,” according to Yesha Council head and Jordan Valley Regional Council head David Elhayani.
The timeline was already tight due to the significance of US backing for sovereignty – a move that is unlikely if US President Donald Trump were to lose the November US presidential elections. The presumption is that, for the US election timetable, it’s best if annexation happens this summer.
In the current climate, however, an annexation vote has now become synonymous with new Israel elections.
It’s a recent linkage that has brought all public campaigning for sovereignty to halt. Given the negative consequences of a fourth election to Israel, no one wants to tarnish the annexation drive by branding it as the reason for the government’s downfall. The new government has been in power for less than three months, following three elections cycles that began in December 2018 and ended in March 2020.
With the focus on COVID-19, there is also little chance of generating enough public attention to use it as a political tool to pressure Netanyahu, so a pro-annexation campaign yields little gain but may possibly generate harm.
Elhayani said that the Yesha Council has continued to promote the immediate application of sovereignty, but is doing so quietly, by holding meetings with parliamentarians and others of influence.
SOVEREIGNTY PROPONENTS don’t want new elections, but are willing to risk a government downfall, rather than lose a sovereignty opportunity the likes of which Israel has not seen in 53 years.
They are therefore asking Netanyahu to find a way to apply sovereignty and hold on to governmental stability. But in so doing, the council wants the prime minister to ditch an annexation plan based on Trump’s “Deal of the Century” and move forward with its own sovereignty map.
In theory, given that the world is preoccupied with COVID-19, “now is the perfect time to apply sovereignty,” Elhayani said.
But Netanyahu’s decision to only move forward with US agreement is one of a series of steps that has stymied the initiative, he said.
Elhayani explained that the US has two requests: approval of the Blue and White Party – which has not yet happened – and then, according to America’s modified sovereignty requirements, concessions to the Palestinians.
Under the Trump plan, Netanyahu can apply Israeli sovereignty on up to 30% of the West Bank, which amounts to 50% of Area C, where all the settlements are located.
Trump wants Netanyahu to place the remaining part of Area C under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority, Elhayani said, adding that there is no Israeli support for such a move.
Then there is the International Criminal Court, whose Pre-Trial Chamber was due to issue a jurisdictional ruling with regard to the court’s ability to hear war crimes suits against Israelis for actions in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza.
It’s presumed that the chamber would rule in favor of jurisdiction. Expectation was high that a ruling would be issued before the court broke for summer recess last week, but the judges were silent.
Elhayani said the ICC was waiting until Israel annexes before issuing its ruling, and Netanyahu in turn knows that by delaying, he has staved off the court.
Then, on top of all those complications that had already given everyone pause, the second corona wave hit, Elhayani said.
If asked, Elhayani explained, he would still say that Netanyahu “should throw out the Trump deal” and “apply sovereignty.”
MERETZ PARTY leader Nitzan Horowitz said he never thought “there was a window for annexation to begin with.”
Polls showed that the larger Israeli public was never behind it and that the global and regional opposition was too large, Horowitz added.
But for the sovereignty proponents, the initiative is very real, even in the face of COVID-19.
There “is a sliver of hope here,” Elhayani said, which would be Netanyahu’s ability to show courageous leadership and not move out of fear so that he can finalize sovereignty.
In some ways, it would be most advantageous for Netanyahu to apply sovereignty and then head to elections, because he could say, “I promised and I delivered.”
But Efrat Council head Oded Revivi said that Netanyahu doesn’t want the government to fall over annexation.
When it comes to annexation, he said, “I have not yet raised the white flag.”
In recent months, Revivi and Elhayani have been at odds, with Revivi backing Trump’s plan and urging Netanyahu to move forward on its basis.
But now, both men have found themselves on the sidelines of the same geo-political snag, as they watch COVID-19 barrel through Israeli annexation plans like a hurricane.
In recent months, Revivi recalled how cynical he was when Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz first spoke of how ‘anything that is not Corona should not be dealt with.’
Now, Revivi said, he sees that this was correct. “No one is discussing anything besides Corona,” he said.
The regional council head said that he has put his hopes on the US elections which, if something changes within the American political scene, could cause Trump to reassess and lessen the requirements he has placed on Israel with regard to annexation.
The other hope he holds on to is that Netanyahu could move forward even symbolically during elections.
He could not help but note that if Netanyahu were to call early elections, voting would happen both in Israel and America in November.
“You have a potential political opportunity which works both for Netanyahu and for Trump, since their schedules would be synchronized,” Revivi said.
Netanyahu could move forward on sovereignty “during his election campaign and Trump will do it during his campaign,” he said, ”and the American demand that it will be an act that is done in coordination with both parties would be dropped.”