Netanyahu to lose annexation option if new elections held first
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is faced these days with an almost Solomonic dilemma.
As a politician he has excelled at wielding new elections as a powerful political tool to his advantage, so there is speculation that he may consider doing so soon to ditch the Blue and White party. As a diplomat he wants to be written into the history books as the leader who applied sovereignty to the West Bank settlements.
Now Netanyahu must choose between new elections or annexation, unless he applies sovereignty immediately. But to do so, he needs US approval and the Trump administration does not appear to be in a rush to sign off on a plan.
Technically speaking Netanyahu can not head to elections and annex later once his next government is formed, because the clock on that option has completely run out. And the clock on applying annexation at all, has less than four months to go.
It’s been almost a week and counting since July 1, the earliest date by which Netanyahu could annex up to 30% of the West Bank under the terms of his coalition agreement with the Blue and White Party.
But for the last six days Netanyahu has been largely silent on the matter. In the strangest of ways he has left the talking to Blue and White, for which he barely contains his disdain.
Blue and White leaders, Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, have been quick to fill the vacuum with pessimistic predictions. In a number of public interviews they said that those who imagined that soon a new historic dawn would shine in which Israel would redraw its sovereign borders, should lower their expectations.
An Israel Democracy Poll released Monday showed 55% of Israelis didn’t really believe annexation would actually happen.
But can Netanyahu pull back from his annexation pledge, which he clearly made during two of the last election cycles to annex as soon as this government was formed? And what would happen politically if he did.
Pundits have speculated that such a move would cost him dearly at the polls, noting this annexation pledge was worth four to 10 seats in the last election.
At issue is not just the clear desire among right-wing voters for sovereignty, but the very public and persistent nature of Netanyahu’s pledge that he would do so now.
True, Netanyahu wouldn’t be the first Likud leader to ignore preelection promises. Former Likud prime minister Ariel Sharon famously pledged to preserve the Gaza settlements only to destroy them after the election.
But his change of heart ultimately cost him the support of his Likud Party. Sharon secured another term in office only by creating the Kadima Party and running under its mantle.
In the history of broken pledges, a delayed promise of sovereignty hardly seems, on the surface of it, comparable to a Gaza withdrawal. Netanyahu, after all, has been famous for his ability to dazzle the public with future possibilities, in part by hyper-focusing on past accomplishments.
Certainly he has a lot to go on in that realm. Netanyahu has already secured a major US policy shift with regard to the settlements. The Trump administration recognized that the settlements were not inconsistent with international law and that Israel has a right to territory seized in a defensive war. That was coupled with the US acknowledgment that the pre-1967 lines, which held almost sacred status under the Obama administration, were now irrelevant.
No other prime minister has managed to wrest as many concessions from the United States with regard to the West Bank, as Netanyahu has.
But in recent decades both Israel and the global community at large have learned something about the transient nature of US policy and the ease with which its governments can reverse past agreements.
Sharon embarked on a unilateral withdraw from Gaza in exchange for a Bush administration promise that Israel could retain the settlements blocs. Five years later former US president Barack Obama annulled that pledge and insisted on a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines without any acknowledgment of the blocs.
In 2015 the Obama administration brokered a deal between Tehran and the six world powers to curb Iran’s nuclear program, only to have the Trump administration withdraw from the deal in 2018.
So for the Israeli Right, the value of Netanyahu’s achievements can only be achieved through irreversible action that would ensure relevancy, such as annexing all the settlements.
The time frame for such action, known otherwise as the “window of opportunity,” is limited to the next four months; from now until the US presidential election in November.
New Israeli elections would take at least four months, so that a new government would most likely be formed only after the US presidential election in November.
Netanyahu could annex during the Israeli election, but it would jeopardize its legitimacy.
A Trump victory is not assured. Trump support of Israeli sovereignty, even tacitly, is necessary to shield Israel from retaliatory diplomatic action, particularly at the UN Security Council, where the US has a veto. Trump’s opponent, presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, has already stated his opposition to annexation.
The Right calculates that July is the most opportune moment for Israel to annex, because the more distant the election date the more likely the Trump administration would be to support annexation and certainly to stand behind a plan that took more of Israel’s concerns into account.
Throughout his presidency Trump’s has never hesitated to stand alone. He revels in telling the story about how he ignored multiple phone calls from world leaders warning him against the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
But that was earlier in his presidency, when he could afford to take chances. With the US plagued by the COVID-19 pandemic and rocked by race riots, it would be more difficult for him to take a risk by backing a plan that could set the Middle East aflame. The closer a sovereignty vote inches toward November, the less risks he is expected to want to take and the more he is likely to take Arab and Palestinian concerns into account.
COVID-19, which is often listed as one of the reasons not to annex, has also created diplomatic cover now for Israel to annex, because it automatically weakens the ability of the international community to galvanize against annexation.
If Netanyahu does not annex, he risks becoming like the mythological Greek character of Icarus, who fell to Earth after his wax melted when he flew to close to the Sun.
Similarly Netanyahu will be remembered by the Right as the leader who came the closest to placing the settlements within Israeli sovereignty, but then at the last second lost that unique historic opportunity. The focus, forever after, will be on the extent of the loss and not on the achievement of having a diplomatically advantageous peak when it come to US policy and the settlements.