Analysis: Annexation: opposition mounts at Bibi prepares retreat

Benjamin Netanyahu is facing mounting opposition at home and abroad to his plans to annex parts of the West Bank.

Last weekend saw thousands of Israelis take to the streets of Tel Aviv to protest against the move, as polls indicated growing public opposition. There were also demonstrations last Friday across the West Bank.

The developments come as it was reported today that Netanyahu is preparing to retreat on his ambitions, and plans to initially annex only three of the so-called “settlement blocs”.

Yesterday, the Palestinian prime minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh, said that it had prepared a counter-proposal to the Trump plan and was preparing to unilaterally declare statehood if annexation went ahead.

In Britain, leading members of the Jewish community last week wrote to Israel’s ambassador, Mark Regev, voicing their strong opposition to annexation.

The Israeli prime minister is also facing a backlash from right-wing settlers who believe that the US peace plan, unveiled by Donald Trump in January, concedes too much to the Palestinians. In exchange for Israeli annexation of up to 30 percent of the West Bank, it envisages the establishment of a Palestinian state and some compensating “land swaps”.

Netanyahu’s apparent retreat – he has repeatedly stated he intended to annex all parts of the West Bank assigned to Israel in the Trump plan – would see Israel apply sovereignty to the settlements at Ma’ale Adumin, Gush Etzion and Ariel. The three blocs house thousands of settlers and it has long been thought they would be the focus of land swaps with the Palestinians in any future peace deal. Ma’ale Adumin and Gush Etzion lay close to the 1967 “Green Lines” to the east and south of Jerusalem. Ariel is deeper into the northern West Bank.

Joel Singer, who represented Israel during the Oslo negotiations in the 1990s, told Haaretz today that annexation would violate the accords. So, too, he argued, would a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence.

The Palestinian prime minister announced that the PA had submitted a response to the US Mideast plan. “We submitted a counter-proposal to the Quartet a few days ago,” Shtayyeh said, referring to the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union. He said that it proposed the creation of a “sovereign Palestinian state, independent and demilitarised” with “minor modifications of borders where necessary.”

Shtayyeh also said that if Israel goes ahead with annexing large parts of the West Bank, the PA will, as it has repeatedly threatened to do in the past, unilaterally declare independence, a process he referred to as undertaking a “constitutional announcement” and establishing a “constituent assembly”.

Public opinion shifting?

On Saturday evening, thousands of Israelis protested against annexation in the largest demonstration the country has seen since the outbreak of the coronavirus. The rally, which was organised by the left-wing Meretz party and the Israeli-Arab Joint List, saw Israeli and Palestinian flags waved. The former Democratic party presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, addressed the protest by video conference. Social distancing was maintained, following an agreement with the police who had initially sought to ban the rally for breaching coronavirus regulations. Among the speakers in Rabin Square were Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz and Joint List chair Ayman Odeh.

Labor MK Merav Michaeli, who last month refused to back her party joining Netanyahu’s new unity government, told the demonstration annexation threatened Israeli’s peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and its ties with European countries.

Before the rally began, opposition leader Yair Lapid told Israeli TV that annexation was a ploy by Netanyahu to distract from his corruption trial and the country’s domestic problems.

“I think it’s spin by Netanyahu, who is trying to deflect attention from economic meltdown, including the collapse of independent businesses, and his criminal trial,” he told Channel 12 news.

The day before the rally saw demonstrations against annexation by Palestinians in Ramallah, Tulkarem, Tubas, Nablus, Jericho and Hebron.

The West Bank demonstrations were timed to coincide with the “Naksa” – the Palestinian term for Israel’s defeat of the Arab countries who were planning to invade and annihilate the Jewish state in June 1967. Israel’s preemptive action saw it take control of Gaza, the Sinai, the West Bank and Golan Heights. Israel withdrew from the Sinai as part of the Camp David accords in 1978; it unilaterally pulled out of Gaza in 2005.

The demonstrations in Israel appear to reflect a growing public unease about annexation. A poll released this week by the Geneva Initiative showed 41.7 percent of voters opposed to annexation with 32.2 percent – and only half of Netanyahu’s Likud voters – supportive. Only 3.5 percent of Israelis listed it among their top priorities – far behind those who picked the economy, public health and security. Moreover, nearly half of Israelis thought annexation would harm the chance of peace with Palestinians. A poll last month had indicated higher support for annexation, suggesting that public opinion may be shifting against the move.

UK opposition

In the UK, leading Jewish figures – including former LFI chair Lord Mendelson, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, author Howard Jacobson and historians Sir Simon Schama and Simon Sebag-Montefiore – wrote to the Israeli ambassador to voice their opposition to annexation. In their letter, they argued: “We are yet to see an argument that convinces us, committed Zionists and passionately outspoken friends of Israel, that the proposed annexation is a constructive step. Instead, it would in our view be a pyrrhic victory intensifying Israel’s political, diplomatic and economic challenges without yielding any tangible benefit.

“It would have grave consequences for the Palestinian people most obviously. Israel’s international standing would also suffer and it is incompatible with the notion of Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state. Numerous former Israeli military and security officials have unequivocally stated that they regard it as a reckless move that would have adverse consequences for Israel’s security and its future as a Jewish democracy. We have no reason to doubt their assessment.”

Other signatories included: members of the House of Lords Parry Mitchell, Jeremy Beecham, Daniel Finkelstein and Robert Winston; the Holocaust survivor and educator Ben Helfgott; Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner; philanthropist Dame Vivien Duffield; and businessmen Sir Trevor Chinn and Isaac Kaye.

In response to the intervention, LFI said: “We wholeheartedly support this important intervention from some of the most well-respected figures in British Jewry, ‘committed Zionists and passionately outspoken friends of Israel’. We’re proud that many of them are long-standing supporters of LFI.”

The German foreign minister, Heiko Mass, arrived in Israel today to voice Berlin’s opposition to annexation. Germany, which strongly supports Israel, is likely to be a key player in any international response: it will be assuming the presidency of the European Council and the UN Security Council on 1 July. Although it is thought likely the German government will oppose sanctions against Israel, Mass is said to be planning to warn Netanyahu that annexation will harm Israel’s relationship with the EU.

Signs that Netanyahu may be adopting a more cautious approach first came on Sunday when he met with settler leaders who back the Trump plan. Netanyahu is said to have told them that he wants to move ahead with applying Israel sovereignty to West Bank settlements, while acknowledging that annexation of the Jordan Valley may have to wait. Such a step would see Israel annexing around three percent of the West Bank, territory on which some 450,000 Israelis live in 132 settlements.

Bibi’s conundrum 

Having pushed annexation to shore up his right-wing base in the run-up to Israel’s three closely fought general elections over the past year, Netanyahu now finds himself juggling three interlocking factors.

First, while his coalition agreement with Benny Gantz allowed for a vote on annexation to be brought to the cabinet and Knesset after 1 July, the Blue and White leader has always adopted a more cautious stance on the Trump plan, repeatedly emphasising that any annexation steps should be taking with international and regional support and in coordination with the Palestinians. Now defence minister, Gantz will become prime minister next autumn.

On Tuesday, Blue and White minister Izhar Shai said that Gantz would support annexation of the Jordan Valley only if it was backed by the US and some Arab states. “He would not consider taking a unilateral step,” Shai suggested. Both Jordan and Egypt – Israel’s two neighbours and the only Arab states with which it has peace treaties – are both strongly opposed to annexation, as are the Gulf states with whom the Jewish state has begun to develop tentative ties.

Second, the US now appears to be cooling on Netanyahu taking unilateral steps on 1 July. On Monday, Israeli television reported that the White House would back annexation only if the move is supported by Gantz.

Publicly, too, the US continues to insist that it’s working to implement the plan in its entirety by encouraging the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. Last week, its ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, said the Trump proposals were “not set in stone”. She argued the US has “been working very closely to make certain that both Israel and the Palestinians … understand that this [plan] is very detailed, it’s very realistic, it’s very implementable, and it meets the core requirements for both Israel and the Palestinian people”. “Until we have dialogue, there’s going to be nothing,” she said.

Aside from presenting Israel with the chance to annex 30 percent of the West Bank, the US plan offers the Palestinians a capital in Arab neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It requires a four-year Israeli settlement freeze. And it envisages a Palestinian state in return for the PA’s recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, demilitarisation and allowing the IDF to maintain security control of the West Bank.

Last month, US media reported that the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, had told Netanyahu’s aides: “The US wants to implement a peace plan, not an annexation plan”. In a subsequent interview with the Jerusalem Post, Friedman said the Israeli prime minister must agree to negotiate the establishment of a Palestinian state on 70 percent of the West Bank. “Netanyahu needs to communicate that to Abu Mazen [Abbas],” Friedman told The Post.

Finally, having repeatedly inflated their expectations, Netanyahu is now facing considerable opposition on his right flank, with some prominent settler leaders publicly opposing the Trump plan. They believe that, in return for annexing parts of the West Bank, Netanyahu will accept the constraints on settlement-building and outline for a future Palestinian state in the president’s proposals.

Netanyahu is telling the settlers behind closed doors that any Knesset votes on annexation would be held independently from those on other elements of the Trump plan. At the same time, his office is issuing public statements saying he is committed to negotiations with the Palestinians, as the US is demanding.

Netanyahu’s genius for escaping tight legal and political fixes is legendary. But this may be a circle that even he cannot square.