Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (July 2, 2020) - The July 1 annexation non-event


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. The Israeli governing coalition’s July 1 deadline to launch annexation proceedings for West Bank territory came and went. Nothing happened. Was this a bluff? What prevented annexation from happening?

A. It was not a bluff. Annexation did not (yet?) happen due to complex interacting reasons.

In analyzing annexation prospects in the course of recent weeks, we have emphasized the large number of moving parts or variables that could affect a Netanyahu government decision. In the course of the last week in June, the variables became particularly active.

Washington evinced palpable difficulties getting a public green light from the Trump administration. Israel slipped into a two-pronged crisis over both a new wave of covid-19 cases and the ballooning economic trauma created by the first wave and the spring lockdown.

Further, Alternative PM Benny Gantz, who opposes annexation that is not coordinated with Jordan and the Arab world, seemed briefly to abandon his passivity. Jordan appeared to have succeeded in rousing both the US Congress and the Arab world to pressure Trump to back down. And Netanyahu’s personal paranoia over his corruption indictments reached new heights.

Accordingly, as July 1 approached, Netanyahu stated to his Likud faction (June 29) that “when I have something to report, I’ll report. This is a complicated process.” A day later, he added at the Foreign Ministry that he “will keep working” on the issue. On July 1, Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis, a close Netanyahu associate, told IDF Radio that annexation would not happen until coordination had been achieved with Washington. The Prime Minister’s Office added that more consultations were needed with the security establishment as well--an apparent reference to IDF and Shin Bet reservations about the wisdom of such a move.

Gantz chimed in that the July 1 date was “not sacred”. He was echoing, as befits a general transplanted to politics, Yitzhak Rabin’s famous quip from 1995 about dates for Oslo-based transfer of territories to the Palestinian Authority. Gantz added, “Anything not related to the corona virus will wait”.

Significantly, settler leader David Alhayani noted that the settlers estimated odds of “80 percent that ultimately nothing will happen”. Even more significantly, by July 1 none of the necessary policy and administrative steps by the government had even begun. The Cabinet had not discussed the issue. Israel’s embassies abroad had not been briefed. The Justice Ministry had not laid out the changes required in legal regulatory arrangements.

In other words, on the July 1 deadline date, Israel and the Palestinian Authority confronted the same strategic vacuum on the annexation issue that has characterized recent weeks. No one seemed to know how much would be annexed (30 percent? A few settlement blocs?), in how many phases, where Washington stood, what to expect from the Palestinians in response, and whether Israel had a clearly delineated strategy for dealing with all this.

Q. What’s the problem with the US position? After all, this was Trump and Kushner’s idea to begin with.

A. Going all the way back to Israel’s third successive election in early March, Netanyahu publicly conditioned annexation on an overt blessing from President Trump. No such blessing has been forthcoming. Lately Netanyahu has not repeated that condition. But it appears he does not have even a covert blessing and, accordingly, hesitates to move forward.

According to some reports, presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner is not on board. Indeed, from the very introduction of Kushner’s plan in January, he has demanded a certain symmetry, a genuine Israeli quid-pro-quo for the Palestinians such as a freeze on settlement expansion and/or transfer of parts of Area C to the PA’s areas A and B. Area C, 60 percent of the West Bank, is currently under full Israeli control. The Palestinian state envisaged by Kushner would encompass 70 percent of the West Bank, meaning another 30 percent has to be transferred to its control or at least offered--insofar as the Palestinian leadership rejects the entire one-sided and misconceived plan.

Then, too, Trump has more pressing business on his agenda. He has woefully mismanaged the covid-19 outbreak and its economic consequences. A poll last week put him 14 points behind Democratic challenger Joe Biden, who opposes the entire Israeli annexation initiative while hewing to the party’s traditional support for the security of a Jewish and democratic Israel. Is this the time for Trump to give his political opponents yet another issue to attack him over?

Q. The corona crisis is also holding up annexation?

A. A couple of weeks ago, Netanyahu was reopening the economy and wishing the public “have a good time” on the beach, in restaurants, and soon flying to Greece and Cyprus for vacations. Likud’s polling results, up to 40 mandates, were so good that speculation was rife that Netanyahu would move ahead with annexation, break his power-sharing agreement with Gantz, and opt for new elections that would fortify him in his corruption trial.

Then covid-19 came roaring back, the European Union put Israel on the no-tourist list, and opinion polls registered heavy criticism of the government’s failure to compensate the public adequately for loss of income. Businesses that had reopened a month ago were now collapsing. The specter of tens of thousands defaulting on mortgage payments and reduced to begging for food was now real. Dozens of towns and cities were again placed under quarantine. As before, the ultra-Orthodox, Netanyahu’s coalition allies, were leading the list of evaders of social-distancing rules.

Under these circumstances, was July 1 the right opportunity to start annexing? It turns out the pandemic can be a political gift but also a curse. Covid-19 was a major factor in forcing both Netanyahu and Gantz to compromise and establish an emergency unity government and avoid a fourth round of elections. Now it casts a shadow over Netanyahu’s annexation calculations.

Q. Did Gantz’s admonitions about postponing annexation in favor of corona have an effect on Netanyahu?

A. Netanyahu responded by arguing that he did not need Gantz’s support to start annexing. Technically, under the coalition agreement Netanyahu has to consult with Gantz. And the entire annexation initiative has to be undertaken only after vague consultations with the Palestinians, Jordan and the rest of the international community.

But Gantz’s overall performance on the annexation issue leaves so much to be desired that it is difficult to assess the effect of his criticism on Netanyahu’s apparent inclination to fudge the process. Basically, Gantz appears to consider annexation a reckless step heavy with security consequences. But he does not frequently express that concern. Barely ten days ago he appeared to be marching in step with Netanyahu when he warned the Palestinians that since they did not agree to dialogue about the Trump plan they were in “deep shit” (he used the slang term in English). Then he reversed course and said “corona first”.

Interestingly, the day Gantz made the deep shit remark, US Secretary of State Pompeo stated he regrets that “the Palestinian Authority has refused to participate” in discussions of annexation. And Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon warned that “refusal to engage will not advance Palestinian interests”. It looked like this issue was posted on some sort of shared US-Israeli list of that day’s talking points: a last-ditch attempt to draw the PA into a dialogue regarding the Trump-Kushner plan, thereby delaying or perhaps rationalizing annexation.

Thus far in his career as prime minister-in-waiting, Gantz has left little impression. Most of the time, he appears to be navigating his political career the way he led Blue-White in three elections: by saying very little, letting Netanyahu bear the brunt of Israel’s problems, and doing little or nothing to give Netanyahu an excuse to abandon the rotation agreement and opt for new elections. Time will tell.

Q. The Palestinians have refused to engage. Are they indeed in “deep shit” over annexation?

A. The overall impression gained from Palestinian polling and statements is that the Palestinian Authority leadership is the least effective actor on the anti-annexation playing field. One reason is that it is doubtful the leadership represents the Palestinian public. PA leaders huff and puff and threaten a vaguely aggressive response. The public is more worried about its economic future after annexation. Meanwhile Hamas in Gaza threatens armed retaliation, meaning missiles and rockets. The PLO and Hamas issued a joint statement on July 2 closing ranks on opposition.

Overall, Israel’s threat of annexation can be said to be moving a growing minority of Palestinian public opinion further in the direction of abandoning the two-state solution in favor of one state in which Palestinians sue Israel and the international community for equal rights. Yet the PA leadership continues to adhere to the two-state solution. Thanks to international financial support for the PA, several hundred thousand civil servants and security personnel have a huge vested interest in avoiding its collapse due to public protests over annexation. Meanwhile the West Bank is hosting a second round of covid-19 and again locking down the economy. Money worries dominate. As in Israel, that is the real preoccupation.

Q. You mentioned Netanyahu’s concern over his corruption trial as a factor. How does this figure into the annexation picture?

A. The conventional wisdom holds that Netanyahu needs annexation to galvanize his electoral base. This somehow will intimidate his three judges in a Jerusalem court or possibly delay legal proceedings against him. Judging by the July 1 annexation non-event, this is either a mistaken assumption or it is not a major factor in Netanyahu’s calculations.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu continues to attack Israel’s judicial system and to unleash a variety of sycophantic Likud ministers, as well as his Twitter-happy son, in pursuit of this cause. On June 30, when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit ruled that Netanyahu could not avail himself of a ten million-shekel contribution to his trial defense fees from a relative abroad due to conflict of interest, Netanyahu let loose. Since Mandelblit, a Netanyahu appointee, determined that such a gift could only be accepted if Netanyahu did not hold public office, the attorney general was accused by Netanyahu’s Twitter and Facebook accounts of “a coup plot”.

Mandelblit fomenting a coup d’etat because millionaire Netanyahu might have to sell one of his two homes to finance his defense? This is the height of prime ministerial paranoia. How it affects Netanyahu’s decision-making on the annexation issue is anyone’s guess.

Q. Your bottom line on annexation?

A. The settlers argue there is an 80 percent likelihood that nothing will happen. I’ll settle for 50 percent probability that sometime in the summer months ahead, if the stars line up in the White House, a symbolic minor annexation or step in that direction will take place. But no more than that. The rest will be empty rhetoric.

A lot will continue to depend on Trump and Kushner, covid-19, Israel’s economy, and Netanyahu’s trial.

On second thought, a few months from now it could conceivably seem, with hindsight, as if this was indeed all a bluff.

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