Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (May 4, 2020) – Annexation in the time of corona


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. Why aren’t Israelis protesting the annexation clause in the new coalition agreement? Don’t they realize that annexation will move Israel much closer to either apartheid or binational status, and mortally wound Zionism?

A. The Israeli public agenda is loaded with what are apparently considered more urgent issues. And a large majority of the public appears to support or at least acquiesce in annexation for ideological reasons.

Q. Please explain, starting with the urgent issues.

A. Annexation of parts of the West Bank that are not designated by the Trump plan for a Palestinian state is specified in the Likud-Blue White coalition agreement. The modalities of annexation are to be deliberated by the government beginning July 1.

Yet as this Q & A is being written on May 4, there is no government. The specifics of the two parties’ bizarre coalition agreement are being deliberated--broadcast live on TV to the nation--by an almost unprecedented configuration of 11 (out of a total of 15) Supreme Court judges sitting as the High Court of Justice. The agreement is laced with what might be termed unconstitutional provisions such as “alternate prime minister”, a Knesset term shortened to three years, and a six-month freeze on high-level security and civil service appointments, any one of which could be disallowed by the High Court. On May 3 the High Court heard appeals against the very notion that Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been indicted on three counts of corruption, can serve as prime minister.

The High Court will rule on all these issues by Thursday of this week, May 7. Thursday is also the last day on which the Knesset can approve a new coalition by an absolute majority of at least 61 votes. At the time of writing, no one knows which if any provisions of the coalition agreement the High Court will annul. No one knows how the Likud and Blue White will respond to the Court’s rulings. It is enough for either of the parties to declare the coalition agreement nullified by the Court’s decisions, to send the country to a fourth round of elections in 90 days.

It is much more likely that the Likud, rather than Blue White, will respond to a High Court decision to nullify a coalition agreement provision by pulling out of the agreement. Current polls show that in new elections the Likud and its right-religious allies would easily gain a majority of 61 or more mandates. Blue White, which has staked its future on this agreement but violated its main campaign promises to do so, would shrink if not fragment and disappear.

Indeed, as matters stand the Likud and Netanyahu, with their approval ratings soaring, may actually be looking for an excuse to pull out of an agreement that requires Netanyahu to move out of the PM’s Balfour St. residence in Jerusalem in 18 months. Assuming, of course, that the High Court decides later this week that an indicted member of Knesset can serve as prime minister.

Q. So what are the odds?

A. As of Monday May 4, I would say there is a 50 percent chance of new elections rather than the new emergency corona coalition government. And new elections almost certainly mean no annexation in July.

Q. And covid-19? Is the virus an urgent issue that overshadows annexation? Why are Netanyahu and the Likud’s approval rates soaring?

A. For a host of corona-related reasons. For one, Netanyahu’s frequent appearances in the electronic media have, at least until now, focused on scary pandemic prospects on the one hand and, on the other, the prime minister’s personal successes in fighting the virus by exploiting his “unique” international contacts, deploying Israel’s security community, and scrambling for protective and testing equipment. More recently, Netanyahu takes credit for Israel’s extraordinarily good corona statistics and phased return to normalcy. Despite lots of grumbling and protests, Israelis are perfectly aware that corona-wise their country is in a class with South Korea and Denmark--not the UK and the US.

The bottom line here is that in an age of uncertainty and fear, the public broadly perceives that this prime minister is keeping Israelis relatively safe, while still bombing Iranian and Hezbollah arms supplies and forces in Syria. He is even helping Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank fight the virus. If the Palestinians are not protesting annexation in this age of corona, why should we Israelis?

Note that the nightly TV news on three channels in Israel has for two months been opening with 40 minutes of corona-related news before devoting a few minutes to issues of politics and security. That reflects the public mood.

Q. So much for the urgent issues. But even if it doesn’t happen now, annexation may return to the agenda in the near future if the stars align for Netanyahu and Trump. What are the ideological reasons that Israelis are not demonstrating? Aren’t they worried about Israel ceasing to be democratic and Jewish thanks to annexation?

A. . Like in a number of other democratic countries, the public in Israel has become increasingly nationalistic and religious and less attuned to the rule of law in recent years. Accordingly, leaders are elected who tend to favor ultra-nationalistic agendas and try to bypass the rule of law. Messianic religious movements are gaining strength and popularity.

Why this is happening in Brazil, Hungary and the United States is complex. Each country has its particular circumstances. And in each country, the political manifestations of ultra-nationalism are different. In Brazil they threaten the Amazon. In Hungary, parliament has ceded power to the prime minister. In the US, we witness increased anti-immigration and even anti-abortion regulations ostensibly endorsed by the war against covid-19.

In Israel, ultra-nationalism has been nurtured by the abject failure of the peace process with the Palestinians and the growing readiness of Arab countries, feeling fed up with the Palestinians and threatened by Iran, to make common cause with Israel despite the Palestinian issue. Obviously, the Israeli political right has contributed to this dynamic, but so have the Palestinians. They are now hopelessly fragmented territorially and politically and the West Bank leadership is paralyzed. Yet they persist in making demands on Israel, like the right of return, that are perceived as outdated and extreme. The Israeli response, egged on by Trump and shrugged off by many Arab states, is becoming greedier territorially (annexation) and more extreme at the Jewish religious level (prayer on the Temple Mount, settling sites of biblical significance deep in the West Bank).

Israel’s response is also mimicking both the global trend and the Arab states’ own non-democratic character: not everyone needs or is suited to democracy; Palestinians can suffice with autonomy; our needs prevail. Sadly, this is where most of the Israeli public is situated politically.

Finally, timing is key: Netanyahu fears conviction and jail, hence wants to leave a Greater Land of Israel legacy while he can; Trump may be a one-term president. The meaning of these realities is that Israel’s non-democratic and racist annexations have only this one chance. To the growing number of Israelis for whom Zionism has come to mean an Israel that is more Jewish and less democratic, now is the time.

Q. Assuming the Likud-Blue White coalition is ratified by the Knesset later this week and that Netanyahu heads it, what developments and actors could conceivably prevent annexation in July or at least reduce its scope?

A. We covered these in last week’s Q & A in remarks that took the form of questions to which no one currently has answers. Will Israel face the threat of biting international sanctions if it annexes? How will this issue factor into US presidential elections? Will Blue White risk leaving the coalition and committing political suicide if it demands a very limited annexation (e.g., the Etzion Bloc) and the Likud bloc insists on annexing 30 percent of the West Bank? Will the Arab world, which thus far has displayed relative indifference, threaten to break diplomatic and semi-clandestine relations with Israel? Will annexation provoke a Palestinian revolt or intifada?

Q. Why are there no answers to these questions? Does covid-19 explain this seeming inability to project a mere two months from now?

A. To some extent, yes. Due to the virus, most of the world is caught up in what in intelligence terms is a “revolutionary situation”, meaning a dynamic in which it is impossible to predict what will happen next.

When applied to, say, our intelligence understanding of a genuine revolution, as in Egypt in 2011 or Iran in 1979, or to a chaotic civil war as in Syria, Yemen and Libya today, the term revolutionary situation means we can’t make reliable predictions. After all, the principal actors themselves don’t know for sure what they will do tomorrow: they are overwhelmed by events. All we can do is point to alternative scenarios based on multiple variables.

When applied to today’s pandemic, the term revolutionary situation means that none of us knows for sure what the virus will do tomorrow. In the course of time, science will tell us whether virus survivors have long-term immunity or even short-term immunity. Whether children can infect others or not. Whether or not there is a cocktail of medicines that can cure a virus sufferer. When we can all get anti-covid 19 inoculations. Right now we don’t know and this is deeply disturbing to society.

Meanwhile we are deluged with predictions regarding the nature of our lives in the post-virus era. Distance learning? Virtual work? Masses demanding to leave heavily-populated areas? De-globalization? Heightened US-China tensions? Ten years of recession? Air travel more expensive? All these questions are speculative. No one really knows the answers. Indeed, again in intelligence terms, concerning corona there are right now many things we apparently don’t even know that we don’t know. This too is extremely unsettling.

Now factor the question of West Bank annexation--which is already hopelessly complicated by the Israeli ideological, political and religious-messianic picture--into this global atmosphere of uncertainty.

For previous editions of Hard Questions, Tough Answers, go to the Index Page.