Facing Israel’s plethora of political parties with different agendas, and with a narrow timeline before U.S. elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is attempting to pass a historic annexation of areas in the West Bank. It would reverse more than 50 years of Israeli policy and potentially damage Israel’s relations with European countries and the few Middle Eastern states it has relations with. Netanyahu is gambling on a symbolic move for his legacy — and taking a huge risk.
On June 8, Netanyahu met with leaders of Israeli communities in the West Bank and tried to spell out what his annexation plan looked like. There were no final maps, and a rushed schedule awaits before the July dates when the governing coalition wants to move forward. How did it come to this? How did Netanyahu, the “Mr. Security” of Israel, heralded as “King Bibi,” lead the country for ten years only to end up scrambling for this legacy?
Israel has annexed before. In 1980, it effectively annexed what was once Jordanian East Jerusalem, as a new law gave hundreds of thousands of Palestinians municipal residency but not citizenship. Israel also extended its laws to the Golan Heights in 1981, enabling members of the Druze minority who live there but are Syrian citizens to get Israeli citizenship. In the West Bank, however, where hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis live, Israel has been cautious to upset the status quo. Peace accords signed with the Palestinians in the 1990s were supposed to be a road map to a Palestinian statehood. But that never happened. Instead, wars followed and the Palestinians were divided between their institutions in the West Bank and Hamas-run Gaza.
For decades Netanyahu has warned of the dangers of a Palestinian state that does not renounce terror. During the Obama administration, he worked to slow Washington’s drive for yet another round of peace talks. Team Obama got revenge in 2016, just before leaving office, when it enabled passage of a U.N. resolution condemning Israeli settlements. The Trump administration vowed to reverse that policy on Israel and has recognized Israel’s control of the Golan Heights and moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
Despite the Trump administration’s pro-Israel policies, it was the Israeli government that ran into troubles with the latest U.S. peace plan. While the Trump administration wanted to roll it out after moving the embassy in 2018, it hit a snag, as Netanyahu was facing new elections. It’s difficult to roll a peace plan when Israel lacks a coalition government and is in the midst of an election cycle. Netanyahu called elections in December 2018. His Likud party couldn’t form a coalition, either in April 2019, after a first round of elections, or in September, after another round. Trump announced the plan in January 2020, hoping to prod Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz, to set aside their differences. It wasn’t until mid May of this year that a unity government, in which Gantz and Netanyahu alternate as prime minister, was finally formed.
Now Netanyahu, facing a trial for corruption, has to work with parts of the Trump peace plan, hoping that Trump wins the November election so that the plan can be carried through. The problem is that Israel would effectively change 50 years of policy by rushing annexation of a few parts of the West Bank while ignoring the peace-plan provisions that would lead toward the creation of a Palestinian state. Most European countries, as well as Egypt and Jordan, have warned Israel against extending its laws to the West Bank. Even U.S. officials appear to hint that Israel should take it slow.
What do Netanyahu and Israel stand to gain from annexation? Annexation changes the status quo forever and chisels away at the decreasing size of a potential Palestinian state. That state is already unlikely to be created, but the illusion of it drives polices of the EU and Arab states. Israel has much to risk, including the possibility of some new clashes in the West Bank and a a further scarring of already depressed relations with neighboring Jordan. Israel also faces condemnation from 19 U.S. senators, dozens of former Canadian diplomats, leading members of the British Jewish community, China, Russia, Israeli centrists and leftists, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab League. Netanyahu has indicated that Palestinians in West Bank areas annexed to Israel would not get Israeli citizenship. That means that “annexation” would not change what things look like on the ground, but it could change Israel’s foreign relationships for years to come.
Militarily, Israel is at its strongest point in history. It enjoys unprecedented diplomatic relations with countries such as India and even with Russia, which were once sour on Israel. The annexation gamble, which even Israelis who support annexation think is too meager, seems to be intended for Netanyahu’s domestic legacy and based on the assumption that a future U.S. Democratic administration would oppose it but not be able to undo it. That’s a huge short-term gamble for a country that wants long-term peace and prosperity and is still weathering the COVID-19 crisis and an Iranian threat. Netanyahu never liked bold gambles, he was always a pragmatic incrementalist. Now, with the clock ticking as the U.S. election approaches, he must rush and try to avoid hurting Israel’s relations too much in the process.