Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.
Blocked by coalition partners to his left, denounced as a sell-out by the settlers on the right, risking the ire of his new Arab friends and an expensive dispute with Brussels, Netanyahu won’t be the first Jew hung out to dry by Donald Trump.
Back in ancient times BC – that is, “before Covid” – Trump put together a Middle East peace plan inspired by his past as a real estate developer. The plan itself was absurd, but it contained an important win for Netanyahu, opening up the chance to formally annex land before a peace agreement was concluded with the Palestinians.
Previously, formal annexation (though not, of course, de facto Israeli control), would only come at the end, as part of agreed land swaps. As ever, this was more than a strategic gain, it would also allow Netanyahu to rally his base against the purported left-wing plot to remove him by having him tried for corruption.
Having used Covid-19 to manoeuvre his rival Benny Gantz into a coalition government, and mistakenly believing the disease was under control (a new outbreak has put Israel’s health system on the backfoot again), Bibi now turned back to annexation, and promised to unveil his plan by July 1.
Things are not however going to plan. The first obstacle is Gantz himself. Gantz has the support of Netanyahu’s greatest enemy beginning with the letter “I” – the Israel Defence Forces, of which he used to be Chief of Staff. For it is IDF men and women who will bear the brunt of the renewed Palestinian uprising annexation is expected to provoke.
Gantz has said he’s not opposed to annexation in principle, but appears to have worked out how to use the Americans to stymie it. He will only support annexation if the Americans are on board, and the Americans will only do so if it is accompanied by Israel recognising a Palestinian state.
Israel’s right-wing opposition parties are distinctly unhappy about that. Unable to see that gaining acceptance of the principle of annexation is the biggest opportunity for them to overcome the Oslo Accords which prevent it, they are using it to solidify their position against Netanyahu. The problem they have identified is the recognition of a Palestinian state, which they are against accepting even on the very minimal territory it will be granted.
One can’t entirely blame them. They, of all people, know that borders can be changed over time through determined political activity.
His third problem is diplomatic. Netanyahu has been pursuing a normalisation of diplomacy with Arab kings and dictators to considerable success. Israel now cooperates well with Egypt, and has even developed a reasonable working relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Though it is based on a shared opposition to Iran and as well as skepticism towards Arabs voting, it does at least require some lip service to be paid to the most theoretical of peace processes with the Palestinians. Annexation could damage that relationship.
Another headache is provided by the EU, which could well impose sanctions. The visit to Amman last week by Heiko Maas, Germany’s Foreign Minister, emphasised the danger here. While Germany is the EU’s strongest defender of Israel, for obvious historical reasons, the one thing it cannot countenance is the unilateral amendment of borders, for the same historical reasons. Meanwhile, even Russia, with typical consistency, has declared itself opposed to the land grab.
Finally, if earlier in the year, Trump stood a decent chance of being reelected; he is now in deep trouble. As I write the Εconomist’s presidential poll predictor has him winning just 197 of the 270 electoral votes needed. A Biden administration, to say nothing of the even more Democratic Congress that would accompany his victory, is expected to be hostile.
It seems the time for a full-dress annexation, yielding what Israeli hawks call “defensible borders,” is running out, but Netanyahu would not be the world’s greatest political escapologist if he didn’t find a way through.
It may lie through a group of settlements known as Gush Etzion, in the Judean hills south of Jerusalem. These had originally been settled by Zionists before Israel’s independence, but were taken by Arab forces in 1948, and only rebuilt after Israel occupied the West bank in 1967. This history provides a figleaf to justify their formal incorporation into Israel and allow the US, EU and Saudi Arabia to pretend it doesn’t establish a precedent, and a figleaf is all Netanyahu ever needs to conjure up a convincing story.