With Annexation Pledge, Netanyahu Might Have Bitten Off More Than He Can Chew | Opinion

Next Sunday, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman is scheduled to join a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. The purpose of the meeting is to resolve differences between the positions of Netanyahu and Gantz/Ashkenazi on the issue of Israel's proposed unilateral annexations of part of the West Bank; land captured by Israel 53 years ago this week.

Sunday's meeting will be the second time Friedman has taken the unprecedented step of directly interfering in Israel's domestic affairs, in a manner and direction that has never been done before. Granted, U.S. ambassadors have always been very public figures in Israel. But they never became openly involved in disputes within the Israeli government—and certainly never to push a point of view that has been antithetical to the position held by successive U.S. administrations for the past 53 years.

The topic of the meeting is, whether, and how much of the West Bank Israel should unilaterally annex. In accordance with the coalition agreement signed by Gantz's Party, Blue and White has agreed to go along with the portion of President Donald J. Trump's Peace Plan which includes annexation. It should be noted that the Trump Peace Plan also envisions the creation of a Palestinian State. To date, Gantz and Ashkenazi support the full Trump plan, and oppose taking any unilateral action that is not part of a more extensive process. However, the Trump Administration seems divided on how to proceed. Friedman, a long-time supporter of the settler movement, appears to be the driving force among those who want to allow Israel to undertake annexation now, without initiating any peace process with the Palestinians.

Even with the approval of the Trump Administration, unilateral annexation of the West Bank would be problematic. Unilateral annexation is not even that popular among the Israeli public at large. When asked by Israel's Channel 12 News: "What is the most essential matter for Israel's government to address?" 69 percent of Israelis said: "the economy"; 15 percent replied "the Coronavirus", 4 percent cited "Israel's struggle with Iran"; and 4 perecent answered "annexing parts of the West Bank".

When asked directly whether or not they were in favor of annexation, 46 percent responded they did not approve; 34 percent said they were in favor; while 20 percent said they did not know.

Among the Israeli opposition, criticism of any potential Israeli unilateral annexation has been biting. This week, Yair Golan, former Deputy Head of the IDF, and now a Member of Knesset proclaimed: "Annexation is the end of the Zionist dream. Why would we want it?" Golan refers to the fear that if Israel goes ahead with annexation, it will not be able to remain democratic and also maintain its Jewish majority. To many, annexation dooms the two-state solution, which has been on life support for some time. A long list of ex-military and political leaders have all said that annexation will be costly and bring Israel no security benefits.

The prospect of a potential Israeli unilateral annexation is even less popular abroad. Earlier this week, amidst the Coronavirus crisis, the German Foreign Minister made a one-day visit to Jerusalem to notify Israel about the negative consequences unilateral annexation would elicit. On Thursday, Jordan's foreign minister Ayman Safadi declared that "[Annexation] is a path to institutionalized apartheid in Palestine, and that is not a recipe for peace."

Furthermore, the Gulf States, whose public and private ties with Israel have been steadily improving, have all cautioned that annexation would deeply harm those relations. On Friday morning, the UAE Ambassador to Washington took the unprecedented step of writing an op ed in Israel's Yediot Achronot in Hebrew warning that Israel had to choose between continuing normalization with the Arab World or the unilateral annexation.

The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, has already cut off security cooperation with Israel, and has warned of a more significant response, if annexation takes place.

A large group of international lawyers sent a scathing letter informing Israel that "such an action would constitute a flagrant violation of bedrock rules of international law, and would also pose a serious threat to international stability in a volatile region."

Even from the usually supportive Jewish community in the US, there have been calls for Israel not to act. JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency) reported that AIPAC has taken the unusual step of informing lawmakers they have no problem with officials criticizing annexation. Democratic legislators, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and presumptive Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden, have come out definitively against the action. It seems reckless six months before an election, in which the Democrats appear to be in the lead, to further alienate Democratic party supporters in the US.

Moreover, nobody is presently talking about the West Bank or settlements, so why is Israel bringing it up — why rock the boat in the midst of one of Israel's (and the world's) greatest economic and health crises?

Indeed, this is the question that begs to be answered: Why now? One of Netanyahu's main campaign pledges was to move forward with annexation, stating that Trump's peace plan allows for unilateral annexation by Israel. This declaration was Netanyahu's way to appeal to his right-wing base; those who believe "God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people and no one should take any part of it from us." To them, symbolism is important, and it means the land can never be negotiated away.

Today, with Trump's chances of reelection looking increasingly in doubt, the time-window for action on annexation could be very limited. Still, why would Netanyahu (who has never made fulfilling his campaign promises a priority) take this action, which is mostly symbolic and does not further Israeli security, when he has refused to act on annexation until now?

Some say Netanyahu will never actually act on annexation. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak is one of the naysayers. Last week, Barak said: "Netanyahu will not do it. I know him since he was 19. He's not built for making big decisions."

Others think that with the knowledge his trial is starting, Netanyahu does not want to go down in history as a mere caretaker Prime Minister, who kept Israel safe, but ended his career going to jail. Perhaps Netanyahu is looking for one grand gesture, to allow him to be remembered as the Prime Minister who annexed a portion of Israel's Biblical homeland.

Of course, some cynics believe talk of unilateral annexation might be a ploy to force new elections, claiming Blue and White thwarted Netanyahu's push to annex. In new elections, Netanyahu could hope to achieve an absolute majority right-wing government (as opposed to the current unity government), which would enable Netanyahu to pass laws that might protect him from criminal prosecution that has begun.

Netanyahu's true plans and motives are unknown. So are those of President Trump. If Trump gives the green light and Netanyahu does not go through with annexation, Netanyahu will leave much of his political base angry with him; if he does annex, much of the rest of the world will be angry. In an odd irony of fate, the one person that could stop any unilateral annexation is Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen. All he would have to do is swallow his pride, call President Trump and say — "We will be happy to meet and discuss the US peace plan". Unfortunately, that scenario is the least likely to happen.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.