When the current Israeli government was formed in the spring, following a coalition agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz which included talk of further annexation of occupied Palestinian territory, watchers of Palestinian and Israeli developments marked their calendars for July 1st, the date said annexation was expected to take place. But July 1st came and went without any announcement on the annexation plan that was all but assured over the last few months. Many questions have arisen about the delay in implementing one of the most consequential issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, one on which Netanyahu has arguably staked his political future. Four specific domestic and international reasons could explain why the announcement was not made.
Reason 1: Israeli Politics
Israeli politics has been fractured for years, even while moving increasingly rightward. Despite much greater ideological conformity around issues relating to Palestinians, real divides remain on other matters between factions that continue to compete for power. When the third election in about a year finally yielded a coalition government that brought together the largest right-wing party, Netanyahu’s Likud, and the largest opposition party, Gantz’s Blue and White, it seemed like some of those divisions were starting to be resolved. In reality however, many persist; indeed, the coalition government created an illusion of unity in a very divided polity. That disunity resulted in large part from a separate crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, which has debilitated the entire world.
Dealing with the virus required a serious and focused government response that pushed the players to put politics aside and try to provide a stable and effective government program for combatting the disease.
Dealing with the virus required a serious and focused government response that pushed the players to put politics aside and try to provide a stable and effective government program for combatting the disease. But politics were never far behind. The coalition agreement signed by the parties allowed for annexation to move forward as early as July 1st in a way that did not jeopardize key relationships. Having Washington’s buy-in was key; however, it seemed as though the Americans working on the details of annexation with the Israelis found them to be divided and disorganized. The lack of clarity from the Israeli side apparently contributed to a hesitation on the American side. Although seemingly committed to annexation, the Trump Administration clearly wants to reap its own benefits of this decision; therefore, the Israelis would need to carry it out in a way that celebrates both the achievement itself and American support for it. Furthermore, any Israeli action that conveyed hesitancy or doubt, ungratefulness for US support, or—worse yet—an unwillingness to carry it out would not be welcomed by the Trump team.
Likud’s partner in the governmental coalition, led by Alternate Prime Minister Benjamin Gantz, appears unwilling to support the expansive annexation claims of the Netanyahu camp and is looking for a more limited blueprint instead. Initially, Netanyahu had proclaimed annexation would include 30 percent of the occupied West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, which was a proportion greenlighted by the Trump Peace to Prosperity plan of January 2020. Gantz professed support for permanent control over the Jordan Valley during the campaign but, ahead of the July 1st timeline, seems to have pushed for a narrower approach that is focused on settlement blocs.
In addition to the failure to achieve a consensus on the scope of annexation, two other interrelated factors in Israeli society might be playing into the decision to hold off on an announcement: the resurgence of the coronavirus and the prospect of another election.
In May, after two months of lockdown, the Israelis had made significant strides against the coronavirus and even reopened schools. That success was short-lived as it became clear in June that COVID-19 was resurging. Schools quickly closed again and the number of cases rose steadily. Like everywhere in the world, dealing with the virus and its increased transmission is a priority for Israel, so for the government’s attention to be focused on annexation seems unwise and politically costly. The thinking is that annexation could be achieved in the future but delaying a response to the widening pandemic could cost lives in the present. Thus, the resurgence of the virus created another reason to table the annexation decision for the time being.
Additionally, the prospect of new Israeli elections has to be part of the calculations as well. Public opinion in recent weeks continued to show that Gantz will pay a massive political price at the polls for the decision to join the Netanyahu government. This alters the political landscape and creates an incentive structure for the Blue and White Party to stay in the government to avoid elections. Likewise, Netanyahu knows that should he move in the direction of new elections, he would likely get a more right-wing coalition. The threat of another election is therefore a potent card he can play to push Gantz. If Gantz refuses to concede, Netanyahu could likely call elections and get a government that would support his favored scope of the annexation plan. This is dangerous terrain, however, since election outcomes are never 100 percent predictable. Further, the way the timeline would be altered might not be welcomed by Washington.
Reason 2: American Politics
Just months away from a presidential election, American politics is also likely to be weighing into the Israeli decision calculus regarding an annexation announcement. For the Trump Administration, being able to proclaim unprecedented support for Israel is critical for rallying his most devoted base: white evangelicals. For this reason, an annexation announcement by Israel would benefit Trump most if it is well coordinated and choreographed with Washington, therefore having maximum impact leading up to the election. But when exactly would that be? This is even less clear because of the unprecedented pandemic. The Trump Administration is mired in the crisis resulting from the coronavirus, whose massive resurgence, spread, and death toll are dominating the headlines. Campaign events have been sidelined and the Republican National Convention, a high point for the party’s campaign every four years, is in flux, having already been relocated. Florida, the state that is supposed to host it, is the epicenter of the latest spike. It is hard to see how annexation would do much for Trump’s standing because Americans are now fixated on the coronavirus response.
The Trump Administration is mired in the crisis resulting from the coronavirus, whose massive resurgence, spread, and death toll are dominating the headlines.
As time ticks down to the election and with poll numbers not looking good for Trump, Israeli decision makers will have to balance the risks and rewards of acting in the coming months. Should Trump lose, these would be the waning months of an unparalleled moment of opportunity that Trump has provided Israel. At the same time, if it is clear that Trump is on his way out, anything the Israelis do now that would irritate the Biden camp could come back to haunt them when they try to reestablish relations with the next administration.
Netanyahu likely knows that a Biden administration would not be as friendly as a second Trump Administration—though it would still be friendly, to be sure. In addition, if an Israeli annexation move is not achieved with consensus, such division could be grounds for the Biden camp and Netanyahu’s opposition to try to reverse it in order to limit its implementation moving forward. Netanyahu wants to get the most out of this moment but the dynamics in Israeli and American politics are making doing so more complicated than he initially thought. That, however, does not mean that it will not happen.
Reason 3: It’s Still Coming
One reason an annexation announcement did not materialize on July 1st is not because it will not happen but because it has not happened—yet. The coalition agreement between the major blocs made clear that July 1st was the earliest it could take place, not a deadline by which it must do so. That means it could arrive at any convenient time, moving forward, during this unity government. The reason could simply be that for various reasons—some Israeli, some American, and some due to the pandemic—the timing now is not right. This is not the same at all as nixing the idea of annexation; in fact for decades, Israeli governments that were led by different parties have executed policies built around this moment being possible. If not now, then surely soon.
Netanyahu will try to strike a balance between making an unprecedented gain during Trump’s window of opportunity and crafting a scope of annexation that provides some ladders to two-state supporters.
In ultimately making the announcement, Netanyahu will take all of these factors into consideration. He will try to strike a balance between making an unprecedented gain during Trump’s window of opportunity and crafting a scope of annexation that provides some ladders to two-state supporters—in the region and internationally—who claim annexation would bring an end to the two-state paradigm. He seems to have created some space to move in this direction by talking about annexation in stages. If he started with 10 percent, which would be more expansive than anything discussed in two-state negotiations when it came to land swaps, Netanyahu could judge the reaction before proceeding further. There would be protests, of course; however, and in part because members of his party made it seem that they would annex far more, the 10 percent would be seen and spun by some as a limited step that preserves the possibility of two states. Netanyahu would be criticized from all directions, including from his right, but all his critics would find something to be happy about.
It is hard to imagine a scenario in which Netanyahu, who has used the openings provided by the Trump White House to try to unilaterally negotiate final status issues by presidential fiat, would miss the opportunity to do so again by annexing further Palestinian territory in the West Bank. The most calculated scenario would be one that follows the limited annexation scope outlined above.
Reason 4: It Already Happened
Sixteen years ago this week, the International Court of Justice delivered its opinion on the legality of Israel’s wall in the West Bank, noting that de facto annexation of territory in the West Bank is already in place. That determination came even before a decade and a half of further settlement expansion in that territory. In just about every effective way, save formally, Israel has already annexed 60 percent of the West Bank.
What does Israel actually accomplish by formally annexing the territory, other than rubbing salt in the wounds of those whose land it occupies? Formal annexation is not more likely to effectively prevent a reversal of the status quo. If anyone doubts that the Israeli presence in the West Bank is intended to continue, the billions upon billions of dollars invested in the construction, maintenance, and growth of the settlements and infrastructure speak much more loudly than any formal declaration. What it would mean, however, is to formally ascribe to Israel the responsibility for killing the fantasy of partition between Israelis and Palestinians. Keeping that fantasy alive, however, has helped Israel evade accountability while it has actively worked to bury it. By not making a formal announcement, therefore, every indication points to the possibility that the Israelis could have their cake and eat it too.
If anyone doubts that the Israeli presence in the West Bank is intended to continue, the billions upon billions of dollars invested in the construction, maintenance, and growth of the settlements and infrastructure speak much more loudly than any formal declaration.
Will There Be Some Sort of Formal Announcement?
It is still more likely than not that a formal announcement will be made, but this depends on a number of factors including Washington’s attention span and its political timeline in addition to the status of the virus response in Israel and the possibility of new elections. It is hard to imagine that Netanyahu would allow the final months of the Trump window to close without grabbing at least one more prize, although doing so might be a bit trickier than he had initially hoped.
It is now even more important for policy makers not to be distracted by this drama as it makes little difference in the situation on the ground: a de facto annexation has already been cemented in place by decades of military occupation and settlement building.