Israel Pulse

Netanyahu’s deal of the century: Immunity in exchange for annexation

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Article Summary
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised the settlers “sovereignty” ahead of the elections, meaning full annexation of the territories, while their representatives say they will grant him immunity in exchange.

There is no written deal between the Yamina party and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There wasn’t even a handshake. But as the Sept. 17 elections approach and embarrassing information from the police investigations into the prime minister’s numerous scandals are leaked to the press, everything seems to be getting clearer. It is out in the open now. Netanyahu is promising the settlers “sovereignty,” meaning full annexation of West Bank territories, and the settlers’ representatives — Yamina leaders Ayelet Shaked, Naftali Bennett and others — admit that they will grant him immunity from criminal proceedings in exchange.

It doesn’t matter how much Netanyahu and his family mock and insult Shaked and Bennett. It won’t matter how much they hunt for and release embarrassing materials about them and their families. Bennett and Shaked are promising their voters their very own deal of the century: immunity for Netanyahu in exchange for sovereignty for the settlers.

On Sept. 1, Netanyahu decided to start the new school year in the settlement of Elkana in the West Bank. While there, he had little to say about the educational system. He did, however, have quite a bit to say about annexation, declaring, “With God’s help we will apply Jewish sovereignty over all communities as part of the land of Israel and the State of Israel …” He added, “We will not uproot anyone here.”

With this broad statement, Netanyahu took one more step toward promising the settlers annexation. In a television interview just three days before the last elections on April 6, Netanyahu responded to a question about the annexation of the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements, saying that West Bank annexation will be gradual. “Yes, we will move slowly and in stages to the next step of imposing Israeli sovereignty over the territories of Judea and Samaria.” As for the smaller settlements, some of them actually illegal outposts, he explained, “I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated little settlements. Each spot with a settlement on it is a part of Israel as far as I am concerned. We are responsible for them, and I will not transfer them to the Palestinians.” At the time, he did not mention full annexation.

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Now, on the eve of the September elections, Netanyahu has committed himself to imposing Israeli sovereignty over all the territories, or in other words, annexation of all the settlements. He believes that he has American backing for this, too, since the Donald Trump administration will let him get away with just about everything. In other words, this is not some case of idle talk. This is a promise that he can keep. And the promise is golden, at least as far as the settlers are concerned.

Now comes the right’s part in this “deal.” They need to back the prime minister so he can carry out the annexation policy that he is proposing. In other words, they need to grant him immunity.

With Shaked, the whole process began as soon as her New Right party failed to pass the voter threshold this April, and she found herself out of the Knesset. According to a report in Haaretz, Shaked did everything she could to join the Likud, but was unable to get past the dogged opposition of the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu. A person close to Shaked transferred messages to Netanyahu’s team, saying that she would support immunity for the prime minister and even use her influence on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on his behalf. Yet even that didn’t help Shaked. As it turns out, the Netanyahu family’s hostility and the boycott they enforced against her was stronger than any immunity desire.

Recently, promises of immunity came from another direction. In an Aug. 31 interview with Channel 12, Bennett said, “Something extreme has to happen for us to oppose immunity for Netanyahu.” While he never explained what he meant by “something extreme,” it was clear to everyone that Bennett had just shunted morality and the rule of law aside to ensure Israeli sovereignty for the settler voters, who constitute his Yamina party’s main voter base.

Shaked, who was appointed head of Yamina after all her efforts to join the Likud failed, backed up her partner in the New Right and Yamina. “Bennett is right,” she said. “If the prime minister decides to go before the Knesset Committee to request immunity, we will consider everything and base our decision on what is best for the State of Israel.” She didn’t mention annexation explicitly. Instead, she preferred to bundle it with other issues tied to the economy, national security, the educational system and health care. “We can’t just focus on Netanyahu’s immunity. We need to talk about matters of substance,” she added, but what she was really saying was obvious to everyone. If Netanyahu does not get immunity, there will be no annexation. Understand it as you will.

By the way, it is also worth noting that Shaked also took a major step forward to advance the full annexation of the territories. In February 2017 she argued that imposing Israeli sovereignty over all of the West Bank would, “bring about the end of the Jewish state … but we should annex Area C [under Israeli control]. … The country can certainly handle granting citizenship to another 90,000 Arabs.” As for Areas A (under Palestinian control) and B (Palestinian civil control), Shaked believed then that the solution lay in a regional confederation. Now she is talking about much broader annexation.

Two weeks ago, on Aug. 21, Shaked and other members of Yamina paid a visit to Elkana — yes, the very same settlement Netanyahu visited this week — and promised full annexation. While there, Shaked presented her plan to lower housing prices. “The Tel Aviv metropolitan area is almost as crowded as Gaza,” she said, “and as expensive as New York.” She didn’t even blink when making this ridiculous comparison. The creative solution, as she called it, was building homes for half a million Jews in Western Samaria. How will she do this? How will half a million Israelis who can’t afford an apartment in the center of the country move to Western Samaria? It’s all very simple. By granting immunity to the grand maker of promises, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yes, it is true. Netanyahu very likely despises Shaked. Recordings released by Channel 13 on Sept. 2 of a 2017 conversation between Netanyahu and then-Communication Minister Ayoub Kara revealed that the very mention of her name causes him to angrily shout. And saying that his wife, Sara, doesn’t like Shaked is the epitome of understatement. But both Bennett and Shaked have developed skin thicker than an elephant’s. After failing to get reelected last April, there is nothing more important to them than returning to the Knesset. How will they do that? By promising Netanyahu immunity. And in exchange, he will promise them full annexation of West Bank territories.

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Found in: Israeli elections

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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