Analysis: Gantz and Netanyahu spar over annexation

Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to begin annexing parts of the West Bank next month appear to be facing new obstacles as the prime minister battles to secure approval from his Blue and White coalition partners.

The position of Benny Gantz’s centrist party appears to have become pivotal: the United States has conditioned giving the green light to annexation on Blue and White’s agreement.

The US ambassador, David Friedman, held talks with Netanyahu, Gantz and other senior figures in their respective parties earlier this week. The two parties appear, however, not to have reached a consensus on how or whether to proceed.

Media reports suggest the confusion has been added to by divisions within the Trump administration on how to take its peace plan forward.

The much-delayed plan was launched in January. It proposed that Israel could annex up to 30 percent of the West Bank – encompassing its settlements and the strategically important Jordan Valley – but that offer came with conditions. It requires a four-year Israeli settlement freeze. And it envisages a Palestinian state in return for the Palestinian Authority’s recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, demilitarisation and allowing the IDF to maintain security control of the West Bank. The US plan also offers the Palestinians a capital in Arab neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Under the coalition agreement reached between Netanyahu and Gantz last month, the prime minister was allowed to bring annexation to a vote in the cabinet and the Knesset after 1 July. The agreement did not offer Gantz a veto, but the current US position appears to have effectively given him one. The coalition deal will also see Gantz become prime minister next autumn.

The discussions are further complicated by the fact that the work of a joint US-Israel mapping committee – which is tasked with delineating the exact borders of the area Israel would apply sovereignty to – has been largely halted by the coronavirus pandemic. It is believed that the committee may take weeks – possibly several months – before it completes its work.

Although Gantz welcomed the Trump plan prior to Israel’s March general election, he has consistently adopted a more cautious approach than Netanyahu.

The defence minister is supported by the Israeli Labor party which joined the unity government alongside Blue and White. Labor leader Amir Peretz, who serves as economy minister in the government, said: “Unilateral annexation would be an irresponsible act at this time. We will take action to have the Trump plan be the start of a joint regional peace process rather than unilateral measures, which do not serve the interests of the State of Israel.”

Speaking to the American Jewish Committee on Monday, Gantz reiterated the conditions which Blue and White have put on annexation. Welcoming the US proposals, he suggested: “We have to work on the basis of it and move forward with regional partners, with local partners, of course with consensus within Israeli society, and with full coordination and backup with the United States.”

However, as Haaretz diplomatic reporter Noa Landau noted: “It seems as if the conditions being posed by [Blue and White] … make a compromise between the party and Netanyahu almost impossible”. Gantz’ insistence on Netanyahu securing not just the support or, at least, the acquiescence of Jordan, Egypt, the Gulf States and the Palestinians, she continued, is “politically … a nearly impossible task”.

Indeed, Netanyahu’s chances of pulling off such a task are further weakened by the fact that the prime minister has repeatedly told his Likud party and settler groups that he will not bring other parts of the US plan to the cabinet or Knesset for a vote; those elements – including a settlement-freeze and a Palestinian state – are, of course, opposed by many on the Israeli right.

Mounting opposition 

The “local and regional partners” who Gantz wants Netanyahu to win over appear to show no signs of coming around.

Jordan – one of only two Arab states with which Israel has diplomatic relations – appears implacable. Palestinian media reports this week suggested that King Abdullah II is refusing to take phone calls from Netanyahu and that the Jordanian government is also refusing to set a date to meet with Gantz to discuss annexation and the Trump peace plan. On Tuesday, the king warned that “any unilateral Israeli measure to annex lands in the West Bank is unacceptable and undermines the prospects of achieving peace and stability in the region” amid speculation that Jordan might respond by freezing its 1994 peace agreement with the Jewish state.

Likewise, the PA itself said last month that it was terminating all agreements with Israel and the United States, including security cooperation with the Jewish state.

In a highly unusual step, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba, penned an op-ed for the Israeli Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth on Friday in which he warned that annexation would imperil the Jewish state’s warming relations with many Middle Eastern countries.

“Annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with [the] UAE,” he wrote.

In the piece, the ambassador referenced the direct Etihad flight that landed in Israel from Abu Dhabi last month and an Israeli athlete’s participation in competitions in the UAE and said that the growing ties between the two countries will be made more difficult if annexation goes through.

In a separate video message, he underlined the point by arguing that “the attitudes that have been changing toward Israel, people becoming more accepting and less hostile to Israel” could be undermined by annexation.

Referencing the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, Al Otaiba said that the UAE supports a two-state solution with the capital of a Palestinian state in East Jerusalem.

Ministers from Gantz’s Blue and White party seized upon the op-ed to outline their concerns. “The article by the Emirati ambassador is further proof that we must consider very seriously the whole matter of applying sovereignty [annexation],” argued the science and technology minister, Izhar Shay. “Everyone who votes in favour or against applying sovereignty will have to do so responsibly, after having understood the security, economic, social and international aspects of this step.”

As Haaretz columnist Amos Harel suggested: “That article stuck a sharp pin in the balloon sent up by the Prime Minister’s Office, which indicated that the Gulf states intended to let a unilateral annexation by Israel pass without comment.”

Israel’s Channel 12 television also reported that King Abdullah and the Gulf states have sent a message to the White House saying that “greenlighting annexation will severely damage the administration’s efforts to enlist the Gulf states to President Trump’s peace plan and will make them take a step back”.

The developments appear to strengthen Gantz’s hand by not simply indicating that Netanyahu has not met the conditions he has set, but also dividing opinion within the Trump administration. While Friedman appears aligned with Netanyahu, Jared Kushner – the author of the plan and the president’s son-in-law – seems more in-step with Gantz and reticent for the US to approve Israeli moves without support in the Arab world.

Stages and scenarios

Opposition from Blue and White and the US has led Netanyahu to begin to talk of annexation as a process which might be carried out in stages. At his talks with Friedman and Gantz on Sunday, the prime minister is reported to have presented three potential options: annexing all the settlements and Jordan Valley as originally envisaged by the Trump plan; annexing the “settlement blocs” which abut the 1967 Green Line; or annexing just a few settlements.

However, Netanyahu is said to have presented no maps at the meeting, leading Blue and White to charge that the prime minister has presented no clear plans for its leaders to engage with. Such reports raise suspicion that Netanyahu – who has used the prospect of annexation to shore up his right-wing base – may not know how he wishes to proceed and that he sees the issue primarily as a political football, one now designed to distract attention from his trial on corruption charges.

Nonetheless, the differing annexation scenarios which Netanyahu presented could lead to radically different outcomes, experts suggest.

In a paper published this week by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, David Makovsky examines three different options:

•    Full annexation as proposed by the Trump plan: Israel annexes 130 settlements and the Jordan Valley, with 15 settlements forming “enclaves” within a future Palestinian state. In all, this would cover 29 percent of the territory of the West Bank (the Jordan Valley constitutes 15 percent of the territory). A total of 466,208 settlers and 109,594 Palestinians (who inhabit 78 communities) live in the territory that would become part of Israel. This scenario, suggests Makovsky, “would greatly complicate any future effort to disentangle the two peoples, achieve true separation, and ultimately move toward a two-state solution”.

•    Settlement “blocs” inside Israel’s security barrier: Israel annexes 52 settlement blocs which are inside Israel’s security barrier and close to the 1967 Green Line. Over three-quarters of settlers – 358,405 people – live in these blocs which constitute seven percent of the territory of the West Bank. Some 18,918 Palestinians living in 24 communities also live in this territory. “These settlements are considered more consistent with what Israel would receive as part of a potential two-state solution,” writes Makovsky.

•    Minimal annexation involving a smaller number of settlements or settlement blocs: This option is the one that Gantz is believed to support and was last week reported in the Israeli media as the position that Netanyahu might end up adopting. It would see blocs such as Ma’ale Adumim (east of Jerusalem), in which 41,223 settlers or nine percent of total settlers live, and/or Gush Etzion (which has a population of 96,378 or 21 percent of settlers) becoming part of Israel. According to Makovsky: “This narrower annexation would focus on settlements that even some Palestinian negotiators have conceded will one day become part of Israel.”

As the debate within the Israeli government and between Israel and the United States rumbles on the arbitrary 1 July deadline set by Netanyahu approaches; but so, too, does perhaps a more important one: the date of the November’s US presidential election. As Joe Biden has made clear, once he takes office, all talk of annexation will be firmly off the table.