- The Washington Times
Thursday, June 11, 2020

Things finally seemed to be settling in Israel after three deadlocked elections in a single year and a corruption scandal, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is poised to stir the pot anew by the end of the month by fulfilling a campaign promise to annex a large swath of Jewish settlements in the West Bank that Palestinians and much of the rest of the world say is their land.

Speculation about Mr. Netanyahu’s plans has triggered worldwide debate. In Washington, President Trump’s advisers, including son-in-law Jared Kushner and Ambassador to Israel David M. Friedman, are believed to be divided on the wisdom of an Israeli move now.

Jordan and other Arab nations have warned against the annexation, and Germany’s foreign minister bluntly told Mr. Netanyahu during a visit to Jerusalem that the annexation would violate international law and result in some European sanctions against Israel.

Palestinians, meanwhile, are bristling over the Trump administration’s rollout six months ago of a U.S.-drafted peace plan that would recognize Israeli control over vast but not explicitly specified portions of the West Bank.

Palestinian leaders have said settlement annexation now would be a death blow to any peace process and any further security cooperation with the Netanyahu government.

Israeli settlers, meanwhile, are hammering the prime minister from the right. The say a partial annexation could set preconditions for a Palestinian state on land that Israel does not claim.

With Mr. Netanyahu forced into an awkward power-sharing deal with center-left rival Benny Gantz, the looming July 1 deadline is proving divisive within Israel, analysts said.

“The debate continues in Israel. This is certainly not a done deal. I don’t know what happens next,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. “Those that have been watching Israel for a long time could probably argue equally effectively for or against this move.

“Israel’s borders have been in many ways unsustainable since its creation in 1948, so a good argument could be made for Israel to do this and finally have some breathing room,” Mr. Schanzer said in an interview this week.

The risks, he said, are that an angry European Union, Israel’s largest trading partner, would turn to sanctions; that Arab nations that had quietly rebuilt ties to Israel would recoil; that Jordan’s large Palestinian community would rebel; and that the Palestinians could launch a third intifada.

But some say Mr. Netanyahu and hard-line allies see a rapidly closing window for pushing ahead with annexation. The Trump administration has been a staunch ally that even relocated the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, but Democratic rival and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden made clear as recently as last month his opposition to any unilateral annexation of lands in the West Bank and Jordan Valley.

“Israel needs to stop the threats of annexation and stop settlement activity because it will choke off any hope of peace,” Mr. Biden told American Jewish leaders in a phone call. He vowed to “reverse Trump’s undercutting of peace.”

Gauging the U.S. reaction

Martin Kramer, an American-Israeli scholar at Shalem College in Jerusalem, said the U.S. political situation was a key factor in Mr. Netanyahu’s calculations.

“This move is only even contemplated because the Trump administration might extend its recognition,” Mr. Kramer told The Times. “But Trump’s troubles have raised the risk level. If he loses the White House in five months, Israel may face the humiliation of seeing its only recognition, by its closest ally, effectively rescinded.

“Given the attendant risks, we could see Netanyahu opt for a limited version — ‘annexation lite’ — limited to the Jordan Valley,” Mr. Kramer said. Washington has been wary of an abrupt move in part because a U.S.-Israeli mapping project in the West Bank won’t be completed by the July deadline.

The Times of Israel has reported that Mr. Netanyahu recently told settler leaders in a private meeting that he intends to annex all West Bank settlements on that date, but he acknowledged that annexing other lands allocated to Israel under the Trump peace plan would likely take more time.

Jordan, along with Egypt one of the two Arab states with diplomatic ties to Israel, has been particularly critical of the annexation drive.

The plan gained momentum when the Trump administration released a Middle East peace road map that would recognize Israel’s control over major portions of the West Bank, including areas bordering Jordan.

At the time, Amman issued a warning against any Israeli “annexation of Palestinian lands” and called for a return to 1967 borders that had outlined a Palestinian state encompassing the entire West Bank.

Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian scholar and journalist, said in an interview that annexation would “expose the Israelis for lacking a serious commitment to the peace process and to international law.”

It would also draw “serious backlash from other nations,” said Mr. Kuttab, who predicted on Twitter that Mr. Netanyahu won’t go through with the July 1 annexation because of the anticipated blowback.

“I think the Jordanians are going to take drastic steps, possibly even suspending the $10 billion gas deal they have with Israel,” said Mr. Kuttab, referring to an agreement that allows Israeli natural gas to flow into Jordan’s power plants for electricity generation.

According to Reuters, the deal between Jordan’s state-owned utility and a U.S.-Israeli consortium led by Texas-based Noble Energy has been in place since 2016. The energy threat may help explain the Trump administration’s unwillingness since January to speak publicly in favor of annexation.

“As for the annexation in the West Bank, the Israelis will ultimately make those decisions,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in April. “That’s an Israeli decision, and we will work closely with them to share with them our views of this in a private setting.”

There is speculation that Mr. Pompeo, during a visit to Israel last month, urged Mr. Netanyahu to proceed cautiously. The secretary of state declined to comment on his talks.

Mr. Pompeo’s discretion apparently reflects division within the administration. Mr. Friedman leads a faction eager to move forward with annexation, while Mr. Kushner is said to be wary of how annexation might damage Israel’s relations with U.S. Arab allies in the region.

Arab protests

The U.S. plan has called for a $50 billion economic program that administration officials hope will tap foreign investment for a Palestinian state from wealthy Gulf Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Both governments have strongly denounced the annexation reports.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan was told at a gathering of Islamic nation foreign ministers this week that the plan was “a dangerous escalation that threatens the chances of resuming the peace process to achieve security and stability in the region.”

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation said in a joint statement Wednesday that the annexation threat amounts to “an official declaration by Israel of revocation of all its signed agreements” and “a serious escalation of its colonial policies and measures.”

While some in Israel and the U.S. note that past Arab expressions of solidarity with the Palestinian cause have rarely been matched by strong action, others say this time could be different.

“Unilateral annexation by Israel is a highly risky move. There is no international support from it except for the Trump administration,” said Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Mr. Shapiro, who served in the Obama administration, said that “the Democratic Party is united against [annexation]” and that “if Israel actually values a bipartisan consensus … it would never take such a divisive move so close to an American election.”

He said “all of Israel’s security experts oppose it” and “worry about a breakdown of security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority,” which would be “likely to collapse” in a post-annexation environment.

“When that happens, Israel will be drawn back into full control of the entire West Bank, including the nearly 3 million Palestinians who live there,” Mr. Shapiro said. “That is when Israel begins to look like a bi-national state, with nearly equal Jewish and Arab populations.”

He predicted growing international pressure, including from Arab states, to have one state for all people between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

“If Israel gives those West Bank Palestinians citizenship and the right to vote, it will lose its Jewish character,” he said. “If it does not give them those rights, it will severely damage its democratic character. And Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature, besides being the core of the Zionist vision, is at the heart of the common values that bind Israel and the United States.”

Mr. Kramer suggested that Mr. Netanyahu may be so intent on seizing the moment that he is not considering the potential implications of annexation.

“Annexation fever recalls nothing so much as its predecessor, Oslo fever: a naive belief in the need to grab a supposedly ‘historic’ opportunity without thinking three or four steps ahead,” Mr. Kramer said.

Mr. Schanzer, meanwhile, suggested the possible loss of American support as the primary factor that could dissuade Mr. Netanyahu from following through with annexation on July 1.

“I think [Mr. Netanyahu] certainly sees this as a historic opportunity, but I also think the Israelis are concerned about making a move with only a few months left in the Trump administration, and what the optics of that might look like if we have a change in president,” he said. “So there’s a good argument for postponing a full annexation.”

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