On April 20, after the longest electoral deadlock in Israel’s history, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and rival Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz signed an agreement to form a unity government with a rotating premiership. Netanyahu will lead the Government for the first 18 months, even as he battles three corruption indictments; Gantz will take the second rotation.
Although officials have committed to parity between the new Government’s right-wing and centre blocs, serious questions persist about whether this principle will be sustained given their wide disparity in parliamentary seats held. An early test for the new Government will come in the next two months, as Israel decides whether to “apply sovereignty” in parts of the West Bank, which many observers view as de facto annexation. According to the April 20 agreement, Netanyahu will be allowed to bring this issue before cabinet or even a parliamentary vote from July 1, provided he fulfils two stipulations in advance: obtaining “full agreement” from the United States, and conducting “consultations” internationally.
WHY DOES NETANYAHU WANT SOVEREIGNTY, AND WHY NOW?
The idea of applying sovereignty has its origins in former Israeli Likud PM Menachem Begin’s December 1981 decision to unilaterally apply Israeli “law, jurisdiction, and administration” to the Golan Heights. In his public remarks at the time, Begin – always a stickler for legal distinctions – chose this formulation rather than “annexation” and pledged that it would not prohibit Israel from engaging in peace talks with Syria. In other words, applying sovereignty was reversible, while annexation was irreversible. To most observers inside and outside Israel, however, this sounds like a distinction without a difference.
Granted, the Golan decision did not stop Israel from negotiating over the territory’s future between 1992 and 2010 (including under governments led by Netanyahu). Yet Israel seems to have closed the issue indefinitely amid the Syrian regime’s brutal, decade-long war, Iran’s military entrenchment close to the Golan, and US President Donald Trump’s March 2019 announcement that the United States would henceforth recognise Israeli “annexation” of that territory.
Shortly after Trump’s announcement, Netanyahu declared that he would also support applying Israeli sovereignty to all West Bank settlements, hoping that this proposal would likewise gain public approval from Washington. Yet a May 2019 blog post by Joel Singer – former legal advisor to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and a top negotiator during the Oslo Accords – called this step a “poison pill” that would make it extremely difficult to reach a two-state solution.
He also laid out some of the political and legal hurdles that would need to be cleared in order to pass such a measure. According to him, the matter falls under the jurisdiction of the Referendum Law of 2014, meaning it would require approval from a super-majority of the Knesset (80 out of 120 members) or 50% of Israeli voters in a referendum.
In Netanyahu’s view, however, the Trump Administration peace plan presented on Jan. 28 has given him an historic opportunity to fulfil long-term territorial goals. He respected the Administration’s wishes to wait until a new government was formed before attempting to annex the 30% of the West Bank allocated to Israel in the peace plan. Yet he now sees application of sovereignty as a key component of his legacy.
The window for securing that component may be quite narrow, though. The coronavirus pandemic has added to the uncertainty over whether President Trump will be re-elected in November, so Netanyahu is adamant about acting on annexation before then. He also seems to believe that Trump is willing to run interference with key Arab states so long as Israel makes the move before the most intense portion of the presidential election campaign (i.e., around September, if history is any indicator).
Netanyahu’s timetable also appears driven by concerns that Trump’s opponent Joe Biden could build a significant electoral lead before November. All of these factors help explain why Netanyahu rejected Gantz’s offer to delay annexation discussions for six months, instead insisting on a July deadline.
ISRAEL’S PLANS, TRUMP’S TERMS?
One key unknown is where exactly the application of sovereignty would occur:
• In all 128 Israeli settlements (which would make a two-state solution impossible).
• In the Jordan Valley frontier (a key security zone that holds major sensitivities for Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians).
• In the 51 settlements that lie inside the West Bank security barrier, house most of the settlers, and take up around 8% of the land (a move that could be consistent with a two-state solution if conducted via negotiations and territorial swaps with the Palestinians, though any such talks seem unfeasible at present).
• In a limited number of less controversial settlements adjacent to Israeli urban areas (e.g., Gush Etzion, which has been included as part of Israel in leaked Palestinian maps related to past two-state discussions).
Some believe that Netanyahu’s top priority right now is the Jordan Valley.
As for the US view, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “the Israelis ultimately make those decisions,” suggesting the Administration will be a partner rather than an obstacle in this regard and will not block Israeli application of sovereignty.
The remaining question is conditionality. If Israel decides to apply sovereignty, will the US ask the Knesset to commit to the measure called for in the Trump peace plan, namely, yielding the remainder of the West Bank to the Palestinians?
Jordan’s Prime Minister Omar Razzaz has stated that West Bank annexations under any name would put Israel’s peace treaty with his country in a deep freeze, though speculation suggests that bilateral security cooperation would continue.
Unconfirmed reports also indicate the Palestinian Authority might suspend security coordination after such a move, though that inclination could be tempered by continued economic downturns and dependency on Israel during the pandemic. Europe has substantial objections as well – in February, 21 EU countries came out against the Trump plan and annexation.
The potential reaction among Gulf Arab states is uncertain. Israel has prioritised quiet ties with them amid strategic convergence on Iran and a shared focus on technological development. Yet, even if these states are tired of the Palestinian issue, they do not like being publicly embarrassed, and they remain risk-averse. As such, they are unlikely to see the upside of publicly aligning with unilateral Israeli annexations that are seen to impinge on Jordan’s security and Palestinian rights – especially in the context of a pandemic that has rendered regional governments all the more vulnerable to public unrest.
Another challenge lies in Washington, where Democrats may depict Netanyahu’s annexation push as not only a deadly blow to peace efforts, but also as a ploy to help Trump win re-election. Leading pro-Israel Democrats in Congress have publicly rejected such proposals for at least a year now. The full diplomatic damage of pressing ahead with annexation might not be felt immediately, but congressional sources indicate they would not be surprised if legislators call for restricting military assistance to Israel in the future.
A TEST FOR GANTZ AND ASHKENAZI
During the new Government’s first rotation, Gantz will serve as defence minister while his Blue and White colleague Gabi Ashkenazi will serve as foreign minister. It will be interesting to see how both men act leading up to the July 1 deadline. They are already being accused domestically of lending their imprimatur to annexation and not using their leverage to delay or reshape the issue at this key moment. In response, they privately argue that Netanyahu could win the requisite support for applying sovereignty by wooing just a handful of dissident parliamentarians.
Yet given their military record as former IDF chiefs of staff, Gantz and Ashkenazi are well aware how important it is for Israel to maintain good ties with the United States, Europe, and Arab governments. For example, given Amman’s frosty relationship with Netanyahu, it would not be surprising to see Jordanian officials meet with the two former generals in the coming weeks to explain how annexation might affect the kingdom’s internal stability. Both men will likely meet with European officials and US Democrats as well.
In theory, a broader Government should enable Israel to make favourable progress on several fronts: extricating itself from its reliance on pro-settler factions, which have held the balance of political power since 2015; reaching wider constituencies in key foreign countries; and restoring bipartisan cooperation with Washington. Yet the looming July 1 annexation deadline puts all of these potential gains in peril very early in the new government’s tenure.