Annexation in Palestine and Netanyahu’s calculus

The Israeli prime minister has broken with the Israeli right-wing policy of creeping annexation. Why the shift?

d Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,
A labourer stands on a crane as he puts up banners depicting US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem on June 10, 2020 [Reuters/Ammar Awad]

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gears up to fulfill his pledge to advance Israeli sovereignty over 30 percent of the West Bank starting July 1, politicians and analysts around the world are wondering what is motivating this annexation drive.

Successive Israeli governments have refrained from imposing Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank for more than half a century, since Israel occupied the land in 1967.

The right-wing ideologues who preceded Netanyahu, such as Prime Ministers Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon, adhered to a policy of quiet, creeping annexation. After the occupation of East Jerusalem and the application of Israeli law to it in 1967 and its annexation of the Golan Heights in 1981, they adopted the recommendations of jurists, demographers, senior security officials and veteran diplomats, and claimed Israel is just a temporary custodian of the West Bank lands until their fate can be determined in negotiations. Netanyahu himself had been following this strategy until recently.

One explanation for Netanyahu’s rush to move from de facto to de jure annexation is the upcoming United States presidential election that could remove US President Donald Trump from power and bury the “peace” plan bearing his name, which for the first time in 53 years gave Israel the green light to annex Palestinian territories.

Presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who holds a significant lead over Trump in the polls, has clearly expressed his opposition to unilateral Israeli annexation, telling Jewish donors during a May 20 fundraising webinar, “I’m going to reverse Trump administration steps which I think significantly undercut the prospects of peace.”

However, the implementation of the annexation plan is not going to be easy under Trump’s presidency, either.

Even the lead architect of Trump’s peace plan, Jared Kushner, is not wild about allowing Netanyahu to start the annexation of Palestinian lands in a hurry. According to recent reports, he is concerned that “allowing Israel to move too fast could further alienate the Palestinians”.

The international community is overwhelmingly against annexation. “If implemented, annexation would constitute a most serious violation of international law, grievously harm the prospect of a two-state solution and undercut the possibilities of a renewal of negotiations,” United Nations chief Antonio Guterres said at a recent Security Council meeting. “I call on the Israeli government to abandon its annexation plans.”

The European Union has also made it clear that it would not turn a blind eye to Israel annexing parts of the West Bank in violation of international law. On June 10, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas flew to Israel just to warn Netanyahu that annexation could prompt European sanctions and possibly the official recognition of a Palestinian state. 

Settlement leaders are not keen on annexation, either. They have launched a public campaign against the Trump plan. They say annexation would risk opening the door for a Palestinian state while ending any expansion of Israeli settlements in much of the West Bank. David Elhayani, who chairs the umbrella council of the settlements, went as far as to claim Trump and Kushner “are not friends of the State of Israel.”

The Arab states of whose friendship Netanyahu likes to boast are also refusing to accept his plans for unilateral annexation. 

On June 12, Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the US, took the extraordinary step of penning an op-ed in Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth to express his country’s rejection of unilateral annexation in the West Bank. “In the UAE and across much of the Arab world, we would like to believe Israel is an opportunity, not an enemy,” he wrote. “Israel’s decision on annexation will be an unmistakable signal of whether it sees it the same way.”

Top Israeli security officials, meanwhile, are warning that annexation would give rise to violence and bolster Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority. Israeli ambassadors in world capitals say they fear an avalanche of condemnations and even economic sanctions.

And for what? For a largely symbolic move that would achieve nothing other than focusing the world’s attention on Israel’s ongoing human rights violations and stripping the mask of “temporary custodianship” from what has evolved into an apartheid regime in the West Bank.

Netanyahu, a seasoned prime minister, cannot be blind to all these repercussions.

He is also well aware of the clause in his coalition agreement with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz stipulating that they would seek to advance the Trump plan “while pursuing the security and strategic interests of the State of Israel, including the need to maintain regional stability, preserve peace agreements and pursue future peace agreements”. Following Jordan’s warning about the dire consequences of annexation for regional peace, Gantz could argue that annexation does not comply with the terms of the coalition deal and quit the government. 

Netanyahu does not seem overly concerned about a possible Blue and White walkout that could lead to new elections. Actually, for Netanyahu, such a scenario could be one of the most positive consequences of annexation. 

An election campaign would delay his criminal trial and could boost his political power. Results of a June 8 poll aired on Channel 12 in Israel suggest that if elections were held now, Netanyahu’s Likud party would gain 40 Knesset seats (compared to its current 36), making it by far the country’s largest political party. Blue and White under Gantz would plunge from its current 33 seats to 12, two less than his one-time allies Yair Lapid and Moshe Yaalon would garner. Jewish voters would accept a supposed “ideological” reason for dismantling of the so-called “unity” government, especially with the blessing of a US president who they adore, even if they do not like the idea of additional elections.

Thus, if Trump gives the go-ahead, territorial annexation would turn into political separation. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.