Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White Chair Benny Gantz are trying to cobble together a unity government that provides each of the political rivals with veto power over almost every substantive decision or important appointment for the next three years. Gantz, however, gave in to Netanyahu on one particular issue: the prerogative of bringing to a vote, as of July 1, a proposal to annex parts of the West Bank or otherwise impose Israeli sovereignty over all the Jewish settlements there. It is the only issue over which Gantz and his party will have no veto power, and it is one that risks regional conflagration.
The prospects of establishing a power-sharing government remain unclear given the complex legislation required to make it happen and the petitions submitted to the Supreme Court challenging the deal. One thing, however, is clear: July 1 is shaping up to be one of the most significant and potentially dangerous dates for the future government as well as for the region.
In response to harsh criticism from the political left over the issue of annexation, Gantz’s no. 2, Lt. Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, argues that Netanyahu at this moment has a Knesset majority to annex West Bank lands. “He does not need us to do so,” he told Al-Monitor. Ashkenazi also noted that each side in the government would have the same number of ministers and equal authority. “[This] will allow us to try and block the decision from within,” he continued. “Gantz and myself, slated as defense minister and foreign minister, will be members of the Security Cabinet. We will be in touch with the international community, with the Americans, with the states of the region. Netanyahu is a very experienced man, and we will help him understand the tremendous risks that lie in declaring unilateral annexation. We will also hold in-depth discussions of this issue in all relevant forums. If there is a way to block this process, we will find it.”
A group calling itself Commanders for Israel’s Security, comprised of hundreds of senior former army officers and security agency officials, have published major ads urging the government to forgo unilateral annexation. On April 23, Foreign Policy magazine ran an editorial by three members of the forum, among them former heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet, headlined “Netanyahu’s Annexation Plan Is a Threat to Israel’s National Security.” While ads and op-eds will not prevent annexation, discourse in the US media could be an important factor in the campaign to scuttle such a move.
Senior members of Commanders for Israel’s Security are not overly hopeful that pledges by Gantz and Ashkenazi to try to block the move using logic, common sense and risk assessments will carry the day. They believe more realistic prospects lie with the quartet of Jordanian King Abdullah II, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, Military Intelligence chief Tamir Hayman and Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman. They are not counting too much on Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, who is perceived as a close Netanyahu associate and potential heir and as someone unlikely to sound the alarm against annexation as long as Netanyahu does not want him to do so. Still, Cohen is more independent than people give him credit, and he could end up surprising them.
A few more names can be added to the list of influential anti-annexation figures: Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his foreign policy staff and top Pentagon officials intimately familiar with the threat annexing the Jordan Valley poses, for example, to the Jordanian monarchy and to vital Jordan-Israel peace agreement (1994). Then there is President Donald Trump, who could find himself torn between pressure from his Christian evangelical base for immediate annexation by force, and some of his national security advisers, who could issue a stark warning against such a move.
Hectic contacts are underway behind the scenes among relevant parties, all of them under the radar and in complete secrecy. Abdullah is determined to prevent annexation and is mobilizing Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the cause. A dramatic move by these two leaders vis-à-vis the White House could also serve as a game changer. Two other influential regional players should also be taken into consideration: MBS and MBZ, i.e., the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The two previously delayed the annexation plan Netanyahu sought to implement last year. If they take advantage of the coronavirus crisis and regional instability to exert pressure on Trump, they would be putting the American president in a tough spot. A four-pronged offensive on Washington by Abdullah, Sisi and the two Gulf leaders could provide a counterbalance to the pressure Trump is likely to experience from his evangelical base, which is committed to Netanyahu, who is committed to annexation.
Netanyahu himself addressed American evangelicals by video on April 27 to mark the 100th anniversary of the San Remo Conference, which handed the mandate over Palestine to the British and expressed support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people there. In the speech, Netanyahu once again declared his determination to annex within months. “The option of presenting an Israeli annexation bill as of July is anchored in the coalition agreement,” he told his audience.
In addition to the clandestine struggle over annexation, the issue will also be played out in the Israeli domestic arena. Ashkenazi and Gantz, two former IDF chiefs and senior future members of the Security Cabinet, could exert their considerable influence to mobilize additional support for the view that unilateral annexation at this time is a real threat to regional stability and state security. They will need the support of the heads of Israel’s security and defense agencies. Their first task will be to block a hasty annexation of the kind Netanyahu tried to push through prior to the September 2019 elections. They will demand a series of in-depth Cabinet deliberations for which the IDF chief and other agency heads will present their assessments. Clear warnings about the repercussions of annexation voiced by Kochavi, Hayman and Argaman could provide the tailwind for influencing a linchpin member of the coalition, such as Shas Chair Aryeh Deri, who throughout his long political career has taken some pragmatic and cautious approaches.
Cautious contacts on the issue are underway between various Israeli figures and the European Union. Both proponents and opponents of annexation are trying to mobilize support in Europe. According to an April 23 tweet by Channel 13 News correspondent Barak Ravid, France recently issued a stern warning against unilateral annexation. The US arena is more interesting, especially Biden’s stand on the issue. Biden does not seem keen on annexation, as reflected in various contacts, and is aware of the dangerous repercussions. (On April 28, one of Biden's top advisers confirmed the campaign opposed annexation of West Bank settlements.) The question is whether he will declare his position prior to the US elections in November, make do with leaks by his staff or opt for silence. Just as Trump is susceptible to the influence of his evangelical voters, Biden could likewise be vulnerable to the influence of “heavy” Jewish campaign donors who hold pragmatic, anti-annexation views.
Biden will also face pressure from the other side in the form of senior Jewish community figures beholden to Netanyahu. Could potential pressure from that direction encourage him to act even before November? Hard to say, at the moment. Either way, the Israeli government that is yet to be formed has a fascinating and complex obstacle course ahead if it moves toward the historic annexation of parts of the West Bank. It will be Netanyahu’s greatest test, but also a major challenge for his rival and partner, Gantz.
For a different take on this issue, check out Efraim Inbar's latest piece.