Benjamin Netanyahu’s drive to begin annexing parts of the West Bank appears to have stalled amid opposition from his Blue and White coalition partners, the Palestinians and the Arab world, and confusion in the White House.
The “unity government” agreement signed in April – which allows Netanyahu to remain in power until next autumn – also gave the prime minister the right to bring annexation to a vote in the cabinet and Knesset after 1 July.
Donald Trump’s much-delayed Middle East peace plan released in January proposed that Israel can annex up to 30 per cent of the West Bank, including Israeli settlements and the strategically important Jordan Valley. In exchange, it envisages the establishment of a Palestinian state, a four-year freeze on Israeli settlement building, and some compensating “land swaps”. The US plan also offers the Palestinians a capital in Arab neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Jerusalem
But the Palestinians, Jordan, and the Gulf states, with whom Israel has been building closer ties due to their shared distrust of Iran, are all strongly opposed to Trump’s initiative.
Polls also indicate that a majority of Israelis do not support annexation and only 3.5 percent view it as a priority as the country wrestles with a second wave of coronavirus cases and the economic fallout from the pandemic.
In recent weeks, the notion of Israel annexing one-third of the West Bank has given way to talk of more limited moves, such as it applying sovereignty to “settlement blocs” which abut the 1967 Green Line (pictured); or annexing just a few settlements.
Defence minister Benny Gantz remains a key stumbling block for Netanyahu. The head of the centrist Blue and White party, who will assume the premiership next autumn, is broadly supportive of the Trump plan, but has long opposed any unilateral Israeli steps. Instead, he has insisted that Israel should only move ahead in coordination with the Americans, Arab states and Palestinians.
On the eve of his self-imposed deadline yesterday, Netanyahu appeared to concede his timetable had slipped. After meeting with the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and White House peace envoy Avi Berkowitz, on Tuesday, the prime minister said: “I spoke about the question of sovereignty, which we are working on these days and we will continue to work on in the coming days.”
On Wednesday, Netanyahu’s office simply said simply there would be “additional discussions” with US officials, as cabinet loyalists insisted that the process would begin later in July.
The comments followed increasingly public splits between the prime minister and Gantz. On Monday, the defence minister reportedly told the US diplomats: “July 1 is not a sacred date. Dealing with the coronavirus and its socioeconomic and health consequences is the more pressing issue that needs to be tended to right now.” While backing the Trump plan, he also said: “It should be advanced with our strategic partners in the region and with the Palestinians, to arrive at an outline that benefits all sides in a responsible, proportional and reciprocal manner.”
While Netanyahu responded by telling a meeting of Likud parliamentarians that “the issue does not depend on Blue and White”, Gantz reiterated his stance in a TV interview on Tuesday in which he said: “We must do it right by bringing in as many partners to the discussion as possible with international backing. One million unemployed people do not know what we are talking about right now. Most of them are worried about what they’re going to do tomorrow morning.” Gantz’s stance was applauded by the Darkenu Movement, which organised a large demonstration against annexation last week in Tel Aviv.
In a none-too-subtle dig at the prime minister, Gantz’s ally, foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi, said on Wednesday that any questions about annexation should be referred to Netanyahu.
Last week, Gantz publicly urged a resumption of long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, and said he was willing to meet to help restart them. “If they request to have serious negotiations I’m ready to be in Ramallah tomorrow morning to discuss this,” he wrote on Facebook. The defence minister said he did not believe Israel should annex areas of the West Bank that had large Palestinian populations and, in contrast to Netanyahu, said any Palestinians in areas that were annexed must be granted Israeli citizenship. He also emphasised once again the importance of avoiding any steps which harm Israel’s peace agreement with Jordan or endanger the country’s security and “strategic assets”.
Earlier, Gantz had told a meeting of the Blue and White parliamentary group: “What I’m looking at is allowing the existence of a true diplomatic peace process that aims for a peaceful life with our neighbours the Palestinians which has been absent for many years.” In an apparent swipe at Netanyahu, he added: “We need to separate between political considerations and the good of the state. The diplomatic procedure will be responsible and focused.” Netanyahu repeatedly used the promise of annexation to shore-up his right-wing base in the run-up to Israel’s three inconclusive general elections over the past year.
On Monday, it was revealed that a Palestinian counter-proposal to the Trump plan delivered to the Quartet last month offered talks with the Israelis. The document, sent to the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia, proposes “minor border changes that will have been mutually agreed, based on the borders of June 4, 1967” and says Ramallah is “ready to resume direct bilateral negotiations where they stopped” in 2014. Negotiations brokered by the Obama administration broke down in the summer of 2014. The new counter-proposal to the Trump plan says the Palestinians are “ready to have our state with a limited number of weapons and a powerful police force to uphold law and order” but it warns the offer of talks will be withdrawn if Israel unilaterally annexes any territory in the West Bank.
Even some elements of the Israeli right appear to now be accepting that annexation may not occur. On Wednesday, David Elhayani, the chair of the Yesha Council, told Haaretz that, at a meeting earlier this week, settler leaders had concluded that there was now an 80 percent chance that “ultimately nothing will happen”.
The US administration has thus far refused to give Netanyahu the green light and appears to be split over how to respond, especially given the continuing disagreements between the prime minister and Gantz.
On the one hand, the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is keen to let Netanyahu have his way, implicitly recognising that the window of opportunity may close if Trump is defeated in November. On the other, the author of the US plan, the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is urging caution. He fears the impact of any Israeli moves on US ties to key Arab allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbours. However, days of meetings in the White House last week are believed to have been inconclusive. Instead, Israeli media reports suggest the US is pushing Netanyahu to offer concessions to the Palestinians in return for any moves in annexation. They are said to include transferring an area to the Palestinians where they can build without limits, or redefining some Area C lands, where Israel maintains full control, as Area B, where Palestinians have civil control.
But, as Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer argues today, perhaps the biggest factor now weighing on Netanyahu’s mind today is the prospect that, in just a few months, it may be a very different American administration – one that will have no truck with annexation – that he will be dealing with in Washington.
Nandy backs sanctions, LFI sets five tests for UK response
The shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, said at the weekend that Labour would back a ban on settlement goods if Israel moved ahead with annexation.
In an opinion piece for the Jewish Chronicle, LFI chair Steve McCabe, said annexation would be a “reckless and potentially dangerous step”. But McCabe also made clear LFI’s continuing opposition to the BDS movement.
“Annexation will undoubtedly be used by the boycott divestment and sanctions movement to further its aim of demonising and delegitimising the state of Israel, he wrote. “Its confected outrage should not blind us to the fact that the BDS movement does not support a two-state solution and instead is guided by the belief of its founder, Omar Barghouti, that all of Israel constitutes ‘occupied Arab land’ and that there should be no ‘Jewish state in any part of Palestine’.”
In an apparent partial retreat from Labour’s long-standing opposition to BDS, Nandy told the Observer: “The government must be clear with the Israeli coalition government that concrete action will follow, including a ban on goods entering Britain from the illegal settlements in the West Bank. This is a major step, but such a blatant breach of international law must have consequences.”
The Board of Deputies urged Nandy to think again. Its president, Marie van der Zyl, said in a statement: “The tactic of BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] is divisive and seeks to strike at the very legitimacy of the State of Israel, the Middle East’s only democracy and the world’s only Jewish state.”
In his Jewish Chronicle op-ed, McCabe outlined the political, economic and moral case against BDS. He noted opposition to sanctions among Israeli progressives and in the UK Jewish community. McCabe also drew attention to the strong trade ties between Israel and Britain, and the NHS’ reliance on pharmaceuticals produced in Israel.
McCabe wrote that “any response taken by the British government in the light of annexation should be both measured, effective and meet each of the following five tests:
• Does it harm or further the prospect of a two-state solution?
• Does it weaken or strengthen the voice of Israeli progressives, peace activists and opponents of annexation?
• Does it hurt or help the Palestinian people economically?
• Does it damage or bolster the British economy and our National Health Service?
• And does it hamper or assist the fight against antisemitism here at home and the cause of good community relations?”
The campaign group We Believe In Israel has launched a petition opposing BDS measures against Israel. “Sanctions would be acceding to one of the demands of the anti-Israel BDS campaign, which is dedicated to destroying Israel through economic pressure,” the petition suggests. “Sanctions are a last resort before military force for tackling armed aggression, not a tool for exerting pressure on an allied, democratic government, however much you disagree with its actions.”