Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (April 27, 2020) - In a coalition from hell, will annexation happen?

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Last week witnessed agreement on a Likud bloc-Blue White coalition. There are still many issues to be resolved, and there are High Court challenges. Assuming everything comes together, what’s your preliminary assessment of the advantages and drawbacks of this deal?

A.  Let’s start with the advantages; it’s a shorter list, but with a lot of luck and over time, it may loom increasingly significant.

First, Israel has an empowered government after three abortive elections and nearly a year and a half of political paralysis. The new government can finally approve a budget. It can manage the covid 19 pandemic more coherently.

Second, despite the right-religious lopsided numerical advantage (59 members of Knesset to 17), the new governing coalition is based on parity between Blue White (with two mandates from Labor and two from Derech Eretz), and all the rest. That means not only equal numbers of ministers, but the requirement for both the prime minister and the alternate prime minister (Netanyahu and Gantz, respectively, for the first 18 months, the reverse for another 18 months) to agree on any decision. Ostensibly, this gives Benny Gantz a veto (“mutual agreement” in the coalition’s Orwellian newspeak) over the right’s inclination to breach the rule of law, appoint anti-democratic gatekeepers, etc.

Apropos the rule of law, Blue White holds the justice, communications and culture ministries, all sectors where Netanyahu and his allies have been abusing the rule of law. It will also hold two out of the following three key ministries: foreign affairs, defense and health.

Then too, the new coalition is pledged during its first six months to expend its energies exclusively on fighting covid-19 and addressing the economic damage. There is one extremely important exception: annexation of parts of the West Bank, which we’ll address below.

Q. And the drawbacks?

A. Netanyahu remains in office. He receives a guarantee against a High Court ruling in the next six months to the effect that because he is indicted he may not serve as prime minister: that would automatically trigger new elections. And he receives additional guarantees for his standing as long as his trial on corruption charges, which begins mid-May, has not ended--meaning appeals, legal delaying tactics, etc., that can take years. Netanyahu’s status 18 months from now, alternate prime minister, a new invention, awards him an official residence and many of the legal protections of a prime minister.

Blue White has lost face (and much public support) by abandoning its central electoral commitment to dislodge Netanyahu. It has abandoned its commitments to amend the dangerous Nation State Law and to finally regularize Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) military service. The only rationales it can offer for joining this coalition are the need to unite to fight the virus, the futility of the alternative--a fourth round of elections--and the prospect of finally removing Netanyahu from office in 18 months.

Yet the agreement is full of holes that Netanyahu can exploit to avoid turning the premiership over to Gantz, essentially by precipitating new elections. Alternatively, and almost certainly, within this strange coalition Netanyahu and his political allies and henchmen will make life miserable for Gantz and his small coterie of supporters: casting aspersions on their patriotism and values, constantly vetoing their proposed appointments, exploiting their “naïve” lack of gutter political know-how.

The agreement requires changes in Israel’s Basic Laws, its constitution, in order for the coalition to emerge, e.g. creating the office of alternate prime minister, shortening the Knesset term to three years, forbidding non-corona-related legislation for the next six months. The legislation required to make these changes will delay until mid-May the swearing-in of this government.

While Netanyahu will not be able to appoint judges and related legal officials and “gatekeepers” like the attorney general on his own any more, he’ll have an effective veto over appointments by Gantz’s ministers (“mutual agreement”). The Knesset opposition is denied any parliamentary committee chairmanships--another dangerous precedent.

Within six months, this coalition will field the largest and most unwieldy Cabinet in Israeli parliamentary history: 36 ministers. Gantz’s half will comprise more ministers (18) than Knesset members. The reason is Netanyahu’s need to find jobs for his Likud faction and its right-Haredi partners. The outcome: a government that costs over $250 million a year at a time of national economic crisis because of corona.

The High Court is looking at petitions challenging the constitutionality of all these innovations. If it rules against one or more of them, the entire coalition agreement could be toppled, precipitating elections.

Q. Moving to West Bank annexation: will it happen?

A. Annexation, or “applying Israeli law” in parts of the West Bank, is under the coalition agreement slated to be discussed and enacted by the Cabinet or the Knesset in July. This is the sole exception to the commitment to deal only with the virus for the coming six months. The reason is obvious: according to the coalition pact, annexation requires the “full agreement” of the United States, along with “consultations” internationally. In order for President Trump to be able to offer his full agreement during the rundown to US presidential elections, the issue cannot wait six months until those elections.

Still, for annexation to happen, a lot of moving parts have to mesh smoothly. This is by no means a done deal, particularly insofar as it depends not only on Israel. Here we can address the issues only in the form of questions and suppositions for further investigation and follow-up.

Q. Start with those that depend on Israel alone...

A. Do Gantz and Blue White really support annexation? During the last election campaign they warned against the security consequences of annexation in the West Bank and in relations with Jordan and called for preliminary international consultations, a provision they wrote into the coalition agreement. To what degree will they stand behind these admonitions: will they go so far as to break up the coalition and precipitate elections? What did Blue White number-two Gabi Ashkenazi mean last Saturday evening when he stated on Channel 12’s Meet the Press, apropos the Blue White approach to the Trump deal of the century, “better to have our [Blue White] hand on the steering wheel”?

What will be the extent of annexation? Applying Israeli law to Gush Etzion or Maaleh Adumim along the Green Line Israel-West Bank boundary is not the same as annexing the Jordan Valley, which in turn is not the same as annexing settlements located inside the area assigned by Mssrs Kushner and Trump to the rump Palestinian “state” they envision. Even veteran settler leader Yisrael Harel wrote last week that “Just as Netanyahu did not annex the Jordan Valley when he had a right-wing coalition . . . he won’t do so in the future.”

The fabled “consensus” in mainstream Israeli politics regarding a two-state partition of the land would ostensibly award Israel the settlement blocs in exchange for land inside Israel, a principle honored by the deal of the century. And it would award Israel a long-term security presence in the Jordan Valley. Netanyahu and the annexationists have made sure they no longer have a partner for a two-state solution. But suppose--a longshot--the Palestinians accept Israel’s annexation of around 30 percent of the West Bank and demand that Israel give them equivalent parcels of land from Israel proper?

Gantz and others in Blue White presumably are the ones who wrote into the coalition agreement the demand that annexation “maintain the state of Israel’s security and strategic interests, including regional stability, peace agreements and future peace agreements.” Will they cite this clause to justify opposing annexation? Agreeing to limited annexation?

Who has to approve annexation? Just the new government? The new Knesset? By what majority? Whatever is decided by the coalition on the issue of the required majority, there will be appeals to the High Court of Justice.

Conceivably, Blue White is confident that for Israeli constitutional reasons, annexation will never happen. On the other hand, Netanyahu is presumably confident that, whatever Blue White decides, right-wingers not included in this coalition, like Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, will ensure a majority Knesset vote approving whatever annexation is proposed.

Q. And the issues that don’t depend on Israel?

A. What constitutes “consultation” with the international community and Israel’s neighbors? With few if any exceptions, every country in the world except the US under Trump will vehemently oppose any expansion of Israel’s borders not sanctioned by a two-state agreement with the Palestinians. What weight will international opposition carry? What weight will opposition from Ramallah and especially from Amman carry? Will the Palestinians turn to violence? Will Jordan and possibly Egypt freeze or cancel their peace treaties with Israel?

Israel-Palestinian Authority relations have weathered innumerable crises over the past 15 years: wars with Gaza, Jewish hill-youth terrorism, Palestinian “knife Intifada” terrorism, the US embassy transfer to Jerusalem, Temple Mount prayer violence. Will they weather annexation, or will Mahmoud Abbas declare the dismantling of the PA and the end of security cooperation, thereby potentially reinstating Israel as occupier of the entire West Bank with all the monetary burden and international condemnation this will entail?

And then there is the United States. The July deadline for annexation is presumably designed for the American Evangelical community and right-wing American Jews, who back the move, to leverage it in order to extract wholehearted endorsement by Trump. So far all we have is a statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week that annexation is Israel’s decision to make and that Washington would offer its views privately.

Suppose Trump, hedging his bets, refuses to say more. Suppose Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic candidate for president, threatens to “reconsider” America’s strategic ties with Israel if it moves ahead with annexation. Suppose a grass-roots American Jewish movement threatens to reconsider its relationship with Israel. Suppose, meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council gears up to embarrass the US by forcing it to veto a strong condemnation of Israel, against a backdrop of violence in the West Bank and Jordan’s retreat from its peace treaty with Israel. Then there are those devilish details. Covid 19 froze the US plan to “survey” the future boundaries of annexation. In other words, there are not yet agreed maps for any sort of annexation.

Q. The bottom line on annexation? Or the bottom question?

A. PM Netanyahu understands that his future is uncertain: both his political future and the fear of ending up in jail. He is 70 years old. He understands annexation both as a one-time opportunity, while Trump is president, and as his legacy. How far will he go to make it happen? How far will Blue White go to stop or narrow annexation?

At the end of the day, annexation is likely to inflict irreparable damage on Israel as a democratic and Jewish country that seeks to live at peace in the region. It will paint Israel as an outcast nation. It will move us much further down the slippery slope toward either apartheid or binational status. On the other hand, recall that Israel’s 1981 decision to apply Israeli law to the Golan Heights never prevented a series of Israeli leaders, Netanyahu included, from negotiating a Golan-for-peace deal with Syria.

Q. Bottom line on this coalition?

A. Gantz’s great gamble is that he will become prime minister in a year and a half. Indeed, he will end the most destructive aspects of Netanyahu’s reign from day one of this coalition. He will make a show of saving money by not actualizing all 18 of his ministries. He will live at home in Rosh HaAyin rather than request, as the coalition agreement specifies due to Netanyahu’s egomaniacal demand, an official home for the alternate prime minister. He might even appoint an Arab minister. The Israeli moderate right, center, even the left, might conceivably come to respect what Gantz does and, politically, forgive him. Particularly if he prevents annexation and survives this coalition long enough to become prime minister.

But, looking to future elections, even in a best-case scenario Blue White is probably finished. It has already lost Lapid’s and Yaalon’s contingents. It will almost certainly continue to go the way of all its centrist predecessors that disappeared, from Dash via Kadima to Kulanu. Labor, too, fragmented and reduced to three MKs, is probably history. Given that the founding fathers of Israel were from Labor, that in itself is both historic and ominous.

What will happen on the center and left of Israeli politics is one of the many mysteries generated by three straight elections and the formation of such a bizarre coalition-from-hell.


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