The empty promise of annexation

The 'Deal of the Century' was supposed to be Netanyahu's ticket to re-election and out of prison. That may no longer be enough.

Prime Minister Netanyahu attends a planting ceremony for the Jewish holiday of Tu B'Shevat in the West Bank settlement of Mevo'ot Yericho, February 10, 2020. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Netanyahu attends a planting ceremony for the Jewish holiday of Tu B'Shevat in the West Bank settlement of Mevo'ot Yericho, February 10, 2020. (Haim Zach/GPO)

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Prime Minister Netanyahu stood proudly in the White House alongside President Trump only three weeks ago, he appeared convinced that nothing could derail his re-election. Trump’s “Deal of the Century” looked as though Netanyahu himself had written it (which turned out not to be far from the truth), and imminent annexation was supposed to be the prime minister’s checkmate against his political rivals.

The unveiling of the deal was supposed to ensure two necessary components for Netanyahu’s re-election: to present him as the kind of leader who dictates his political worldview to the world’s largest superpower; and to make the third round of Israeli elections in under a year about ideology rather than Netanyahu’s corruption trial, which is set to begin two weeks after Election Day. Instead of “Bibi — Yes or No,” the prime minister wants these elections to revolve around “Greater Israel — Yes or No.”

Netanyahu had every reason to believe this would be his surest path to victory. After all, for the past 20 years, ever since Ariel Sharon won the election in 2003 with his right-wing bloc gaining 69 Knesset seats, the common wisdom has been that Israel is moving inexorably to the right. Netanyahu would be right to assume that his failure to bring about a Sharon-like parliamentary majority in the last two elections is related to his corruption scandals, his attack on the rule of law, and his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties.

The return of Netanyahu’s political-ideological vision — and whether voters will support or oppose a plan that is supposed to realize the right’s most ambitious dreams — was supposed to paper over the scandals plaguing the prime minister. It was also supposed to cause the Israeli public, which is ostensibly right wing, to support the only candidate who can execute the right’s ambitions of annexing the settlements and entrenching exclusive Israeli rule from the river to the sea.

The empty promise of annexation
Palestinian protesters hold pictures of President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a demonstration against the ‘Deal of the Century,’ Khan Yunis, southern Gaza Strip, February 3, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

One might suspect that Trump himself, who views Netanyahu as an important ally in his global nationalist coalition, would be happy to support the cause. Otherwise, it would be difficult to understand just why the president insisted on unveiling the deal five weeks before the Israeli election, when in fact it had been finalized months beforehand. The U.S. media’s rather minor interest in the so-called “Deal of the Century,” including right-wing outlets, is testament to the fact that Trump’s main objective was to save Netanyahu rather than win support among the American public.

But three weeks after the ceremony in Washington and two weeks before the Israeli elections, one can safely say that the move did not bear the fruit Netanyahu had hoped. Not a single of the 60 polls published since September shows Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc reaching the vaunted 61 Knesset seats necessary to form a coalition. In an article published in Foreign Policy, +972’s Dahlia Scheindlin found that polls show the right continuing to lag behind the non-right.

This does not mean that a Netanyahu victory on March 2 is an impossibility, yet the chances are slim that 100 percent of the polls are wrong. If we take into account that in the last two elections the polls predicted far better results for the right than what it actually received, then that chance shrinks even more.

So why hasn’t annexation succeeded — at least presently — in turning into Netanyahu’s winning card? One can provide several explanations. The first is the farce of immediate annexation. In the days leading up to the unveiling, Netanyahu’s supporters in the media declared that the Trump administration had given the green light for immediate annexation of the Jordan Valley and perhaps all the settlements in the West Bank. Not only that, they announced that the Israeli government would decide to annex in a meeting held just five days after the White House ceremony — without the need for approval from the Knesset. Netanyahu himself confirmed that the government was going ahead with annexation.

The empty promise of annexation
President Trump displays the controversial Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism during an afternoon Hanukkah reception alongside members of his administration, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, in the White House, December 11, 2019. (Joyce N. Boghosian/White House Photo)

That didn’t happen. In fact, one could even say that the exact opposite thing took place. After a few days of contradicting reports, Jared Kushner, who effectively wrote Trump’s plan, clarified that there would be no annexation before the Israeli election, and that he would wait for the establishment of an Israeli government and a joint Israeli-American commission to prepare detailed maps for annexation. It is unclear whether Netanyahu knew ahead of time that this was the administration’s position and thus lied to the public, or whether the White House changed its mind due to internal and external pressure. Either way, exactly a week after Netanyahu’s “historic moment,” he was forced to admit that annexation would have to wait for after the elections. If he wins, that is.

Ideology or opportunism?

When the pro-settler “Women in Green” movement began publishing its magazine “Ribonut” (“Sovereignty”) in 2013, the very notion of annexation was still considered fringe, even on the right. It is true that the Greater Israel movement was established immediately after the 1967 War, but even when Menachem Begin, who believed in an Israel from the river to the sea, came to power 10 years later, he made no move to apply Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank. Immediately after the war, his successor, Yitzhak Shamir, who was certainly no more moderate than Begin, also did nothing to promote annexation.

One can argue over whether Netanyahu is a right-wing ideologue dedicated to Greater Israel or simply an opportunist who is using the discourse of annexation to win the elections. The fact is that even in his first term as prime minister in 1996, and over the last 10 years of his rule, he has not promoted the annexation of the West Bank. There is no doubt that Netanyahu made every effort to crush Palestinian nationalism and put an end to any real discussion about a Palestinian state in Israel and around the world. But he did this by fervently maintaining the status quo. Creeping annexation — the gradual takeover of Palestinian land through legal and extra-legal means — and the erasure of the Green Line are Netanyahu’s doing, but he did not believe that officially applying Israeli sovereignty was the right move.

Even the national-religious camp, most closely associated with the settler movement, did not push the idea of annexation. Mafdal, the historic national-religious party that eventually morphed into Jewish Home, accepted the idea of a Greater Israel in the late 1960s, but it had never turned annexation into a condition for entering any of the successive governments it joined. Even when Naftali Bennett established Jewish Home and began talking about his so-called “Stability Plan” and the annexation of Area C of the West Bank (which is already under complete Israeli control), it was not seen as a political demand so much as a PR stunt. After all, he has been in every government since 2013 and has done little to promote his vision.

The empty promise of annexation
Israeli settlers seen after Israeli forces demolish a home in the illegal outpost of Komi Ori, near the settlement of Yitzhar in the West Bank, January 15, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Something has changed over the past few years. One needs a deeper analysis to explain the shift — perhaps it is the frustration that the settlers cannot translate their success into changing reality, the rise of the global right, the weakness of the Palestinians, and the turmoil that has enveloped the Arab world. But there is no doubt that the annexation campaign that originated on the right-wing fringe has entered the Israeli mainstream.

Netanyahu was the last to jump on the annexation bandwagon. In the run-up to the April 2019 elections, annexation suddenly appeared as part of his platform. This is most likely due to his legal troubles. Annexation is the currency Netanyahu pays the settler right and the Likud’s hawkish flank in order to continue earning their support despite the investigations against him. As the investigations transformed into an indictment, his dependence on the right only increased. Even after it became clear that there would be no immediate annexation, it remained his key election promise.

One of the main reasons annexation remained on the sidelines, even among the right, was the assumption that the international community would not allow it. Trump’s Middle East plan was supposed to drive a stake through that assumption. Yet even the document itself does not include American consent for unilateral annexation of the settlements. Trump’s recognition that the settlements would remain in Israeli sovereign territory was supposed to have a dramatic effect on Israeli public opinion.

That only partially worked. Blue and White, which presents itself as a center-right party, could not oppose the Trump plan. That is how, at least on paper, more than 90 current members of Knesset now openly support the annexation of all the settlements. Netanyahu was meant to ride this wave all the way to victory.

A Pyrrhic victory

And it still did not work. Alongside his support for the Trump plan, Blue and White Chairman Benny Gantz added a word of caution: he opposes unilateral annexation. Avigdor Liberman reiterated his support for immediate annexation of the Jordan Valley, but it is hard to say that it is high on his priority list in this election campaign. Liberman says he will be ready to sit in the government with Labor and Meretz, two parties that will certainly not annex the settlements, at least not unilaterally.

The polls do not provide us with a clear picture vis-à-vis support for annexation. A survey published just days before the White House ceremony showed that a third of Israelis support annexing the Jordan Valley. After the deal was published, when it appeared annexation would occur the following morning and with American support, that number jumped to 51 percent. But after it became clear that the Americans asked to postpone annexation, support for the idea dropped significantly.

If Israelis are so right wing, why do they not wholeheartedly support annexation? It is possible that this is because the settlement enterprise has undergone a kind of “normalization” — thanks to the Oslo process and the division of the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C — which has given many Israelis the impression that annexation has already taken place and the settlements are part of Israel. It is possible that right-wing leaders no longer believe Netanyahu, and that voters care about different issues such as corruption, the rule of law, relations between religious and secular Jews, etc.

There is an additional possibility that goes largely ignored, even among the left: that Israeli voters are less right wing than we tend to think. The headline of Scheindlin’s article is “Has the Israeli Right Peaked?” Results of the previous rounds of elections hint that the answer may be in the affirmative. The right-wing bloc, including Liberman, got 67 seats in the 2015 elections. In the April 2019 elections, that same bloc won 65 seats. In September 2019, it dropped to 63.

The empty promise of annexation
Avigdor Liberman and members of his Yisrael Beitenu party visit the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank, January 26, 2020. (Flash90)

If we remove Liberman, the wild card, from the right-wing bloc, that drop is even steeper. In 2015, the right-wing bloc, including Kahlon’s centrist Kulanu party, received 63 seats. In April 2019 it dropped to 60 seats and in September it sank to 55. This decline should be even more surprising in light of the fact that demographics should be on the side of the right. According to data published by the Taub Center, an Israeli non-partisan socioeconomic research institute, the ultra-Orthodox population doubles every 17 years, the national-religious population doubles every 26 years, and the secular and masorti (not strictly observant Jews) population only every 30 years. This was supposed to secure a right-wing victory forever.

Removing Liberman from the equation is not entirely arbitrary. While it is true that when it comes to hating Arabs, Liberman is deeply right wing, he does not fit into the strongest common denominator of the right-wing camp in Israel: the religious Jewish identity of its voters. It is unclear whether Liberman, a staunch secularist and nationalist, has any way to return to a camp whose Jewish identity has been near-monopolized by the ultra-Orthodox and nationalist ultra-Orthodox.

Under pressure from the settlers and his upcoming trial, Netanyahu has turned these elections into a national referendum on annexation. If his camp does not receive the necessary 61 seats, annexation may disappear from the public agenda for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, a Trump loss in November may be a blow that the annexation camp will have trouble recovering from. Netanyahu’s bet on annexation as a panacea that will bring him more voters could very well put the idea in a deep freeze.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.