Netanyahu’s annexation promise panned as electioneering

annexation watch

Kobi Gideon (GPO)

Following hours of speculation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Tuesday that his next government, if re-elected on September 17, will immediately apply Israeli law to the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea as part of a broader plan to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The embattled Israeli leader called on voters to grant him the mandate to capitalize on a “unique, one-off opportunity” created by the Trump administration’s green light. 

Why it matters: “A polling company working for Netanyahu’s Likud party has in recent days been asking voters about potential support by Donald Trump’s administration for annexation of various areas.” [Haaretz]

Behind the scenes: According to media reports, Netanyahu was expected to declare the move immediately, but backed down after the Trump administration expressed its opposition ahead of the peace plan rollout. “Out of respect for President Trump and out of great faith in our friendship, I will wait for the release of the president’s peace plan before extending sovereignty,” Netanyahu said. “To the extent possible, I want to extend sovereignty to these communities and other areas in maximum coordination with the United States.”

Word from the White House: An administration official told JI that there “is no change in U.S. policy at this time.” The official added that the Trump peace plan will be released “after the Israeli election” and that the White House will “work to determine the best path forward to bring long-sought security, opportunity and stability to the region.” The White House confirmed that Netanyahu informed the administration ahead of time and that they didn’t object because the understanding was that it doesn’t preclude the possibility of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

REACTION  — Netanyahu’s campaign rivals quickly dismissed his “dramatic announcement” as more political spin just days away from the election. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said if Israel moves forward with the plan it will have “succeeded in burying even any chance of peace between Palestinians and Israelis.” Across the Arab world, however, the reaction was more muted, though the Arab League labeled Netanyahu’s promise as “aggression.” J Street called the move “unacceptable,” while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) both condemned it.      

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer tells JI: “The announcement is the 2019 version of [Netanyahu’s 2015 election day claim that] ‘the Arabs are coming in droves to vote.’ It will frighten some into believing there’s a credible threat from the east that justifies this action, and it will cause right-wing voters to cheer and vote for Likud. Any even semi-positive reaction from Washington will add another fatal blow to an already dead U.S. peace policy.”

Nimrod Novik, a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum and former advisor to Shimon Peres, tells JI that if Netanyahu’s declaration is just electioneering, “it signals panic. If there is a risk that he will make good on it, that is probably the most important reason to hope that he is not reelected.” While Novik supports Israel annexing certain portions of the West Bank in any future peace negotiations, “what works in an agreement can prove disastrous when done unilaterally.” 

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro emails JI: “If Trump signals he would recognize Israeli unilateral annexation in the West Bank, that may excite some Israeli voters. But that party could come with a hangover. In a little over a year, a Democratic successor to Trump would certainly withdraw [such] U.S. recognition.”

Dr. Dore Gold opined that Netanyahu’s move was to put the subject  — a consensus — “back on the diplomatic table.” According to Gold, in his final Knesset address in 1995, then-Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin “declared that the future border of Israel will be in the Jordan Valley in the widest sense of that term.” 

ZOA’s Klein tells JI that given Netanyahu’s past history in making pre-election promises, “we cannot have confidence that he will actually follow through on his promise” to annex Jewish communities in Area C. “His record is not great.”  

Dr. Einat Wilf, a former member of Knesset, suggested that Netanyahu’s campaign promise “has been carefully crafted to appeal to the maximalist agenda of the right-wing settler movement for full annexation of much of the West Bank, while also appealing to the Israeli security-oriented political center, which considers the Jordan Valley an essential security asset of Israel.”

However, according to Wilf, “the unintended consequence of Netanyahu’s campaign promise is that it might finally open a much-needed discussion in Israel on crafting Israel’s final eastern border, even in the absence of a possibility of attaining a peace agreement with the Palestinians… The debate over the precise extent of annexation — from the left’s 4-8% to the right’s 60-100% — might define the political map for the coming years.” 

Dov Zakheim, a former Bush and Reagan administration official, explained in an interview that Trump doesn’t seem to have gone out of his way to help Netanyahu in this repeat election because he is “hedging his bets. If Netanyahu wins, then he will support him. If he loses, then Bibi is a loser and Trump will dump him as quickly as he dumps anybody else.” 

But Zakheim emphasized that not supporting Netanyahu doesn’t necessarily mean that Trump is dumping Israel. “It’s not so much the American Jewish vote Trump cares about. He cares about the evangelical vote, and he needs that vote regardless of what happens to Netanyahu. From Trump’s perspective, the best thing is just to keep quiet. The basic rule with our president is it’s all about what is good for Trump, and if you look at it this way, everything that he’s done makes sense. Right now it’s not good for Trump to commit to Netanyahu. So he won’t. He might, but I’d be very surprised if he does.” 

Susie Gelman, chair of Israel Policy Forum: “At a minimum, this is a craven ploy by Netanyahu to shore up his right-wing base in order to be re-elected next week.  I would not be surprised if this move has been coordinated with the Trump administration. Frankly, Bibi made his intentions about annexation known in the final days before the April elections.  This statement just makes those intentions more explicit.”

According to Gelman, “Any form of annexation would be a disaster in terms of future prospects for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would be the death knell of the two-state solution, and would force Israel to choose between being a Jewish state or a democratic one.”

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