Trump May Determine Israel’s Annexation Schedule

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Israel’s new coalition government seems to be contemplating massive annexations of occupied Palestinian territories in the coming weeks. The person dictating the timetable may not be an Israeli at all, but President Donald Trump.

Article 29 of the national unity government agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White coalition explicitly opens the door to annexations. Trump’s so-called “Peace to Prosperity” proposal announced on Jan 28 gave Israel license to permanently appropriate all existing settlements in the West Bank, plus the strategically crucial Jordan Valley. This would completely encircle any potential Palestinian entity within a greater Israeli state.

Netanyahu, fighting not only for reelection but also to avoid a criminal trial on corruption charges, leapt at the chance to announce that he would immediately annex much of the West Bank. Trump and his son-in-law—and advisor on the Middle East—Jared Kushner warned Netanyahu to wait.

Gantz adopted an incoherent policy in favor of annexation but only in coordination with the international community, whatever that means. During weeks of negotiations to form a government, Gantz insisted his party would not support unilateral annexation. But the new agreement marks his complete capitulation.

Netanyahu appears determined to go forward for personal, political and ideological reasons. And Gantz is no longer inclined to stop him.

There is an additional incentive for Netanyahu and his allies to move quickly: Trump is in big trouble politically. The coronavirus pandemic has decimated the U.S. economy, depriving the president of his main reelection pitch, and his poll numbers are sinking badly. Moreover, he will have to face the centrist veteran Joe Biden, a more formidable opponent than the avowedly socialist Bernie Sanders.

None of the leading Democrats have embraced the Trump proposal. So it would be reasonable for Netanyahu to conclude that this opportunity for Israel to seize large swaths of Palestinian territory with American approval may never be on offer again. Once the deed is done, it would be extremely difficult for another president, whether Biden or anyone else, to force an Israeli withdrawal.

Netanyahu may be willing to bear the costs annexation would impose on Israel, including another bloody conflagration with the Palestinians, serious damage to relations with Jordan, for long Israel’s closest ally in the Arab world. He may be willing to risk recent improvements in relations with other Arab states.

If anything gives the prime minister pause, it may be the knowledge that annexation would create another major headache for Trump, who has plenty of crises on his plate right now.

Trump may not care if there is an explosion of Palestinian anger, and the Arab states are unlikely to direct their anger at him. But an annexation drive would set off a debate within the U.S. over the nature of American support for Israel, which is neither in the interest of the president nor of the prime minister.

Few Democrats, including Jewish supporters of Israel, favor the annexation plan; internationalist Republicans in the Senate are also skeptical. On the eve Trump’s re-election bid, it would be politically awkward to abandon a decades-long bipartisan consensus for a two-state solution, with very limited domestic support and widespread anxiety about the consequences.

Much depends now on the signal Trump sends to Netanyahu. A green light would allow Israel to move rapidly on annexation, with only the current coronavirus crisis serving as any kind of brake.

A clear red light is unlikely: It would be hard for Trump, having essentially endorsed annexation earlier this year, to now do a volte-face. But he might be able to hold up the process by asking Netanyahu to wait for the Israeli-American “mapping committee”—which is to determine exactly which areas of the occupied West Bank Israel can be permanently annexed—to complete its task. The committee’s deliberations can then be dragged out until Trump feels politically secure enough.

A third possibility is a flashing yellow. Trump might quietly encourage Netanyahu to take something small for now, like the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, which most Palestinians assume will eventually become part of Israel anyway. This would set the precedent, both in Israel and in Washington, without actually setting off a conflagration. Having thus laid the groundwork at little political cost, Trump and Kushner could make the annexations a second-term project.

That might make the implementation of Article 29 of the Netanyahu-Gantz deal contingent on the outcome of the U.S. election in November. The question is whether the prime minister and his hardliners are prepared to risk waiting.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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