IDF carries out ‘virtual’ annexation excercise

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to start annexation in parts of the West Bank on July 1


War games and high-level military simulations are usually focused on trying to predict how the enemy will act. In the virtual exercise held on Wednesday by the IDF and the Shin Bet security service, the greatest unknown was the actions of their own government.

The IDF has been instructed to prepare for developments in the weeks before the July 1 date on which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to start annexation (or “application of Israeli law”) in parts of the West Bank. The IDF has not been told, however, not even at the highest levels, if, when or how it is to take place.

In the absence of a clear idea of what ‘‘their side’’ is about to do, the senior officers and security chiefs focused on possible scenarios of violent Palestinian reaction and earmarked units that would be rushed to the West Bank for reinforcements.

On Monday, Defence Minister and alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz formally instructed IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Aviv Kochavi “to hasten the IDF’s preparations towards diplomatic steps that are on the agenda in the Palestinian sphere.” He could have hardly been more cryptic and the statement lead to speculation that even Mr Gantz wasn’t fully aware of Mr Netanyahu’s plans. That is, of course, assuming that Mr Netanyahu has made up his mind.

The prospects will be determined first by the attitude of the Trump administration. In the framework proposed by the Trump peace plan in January, about 30 per cent of the West Bank, including the Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley, are earmarked for becoming part of Israel. But the plan does not specify a timetable or a map. A joint US-Israel committee has been working on a map but their work is not yet complete.

In recent days, there have been ‘‘restraining messages’’ from the US administration, quietly calling upon the Netanyahu government to slow down. This is in part due to pressure on the administration from its Arab allies and the fact that with Covid-19 and riots in America’s main cities, the last thing they have time to deal with is a crisis in the Middle East.

Mr Netanyahu is normally a cautious leader and has not moved to annex parts of the West Bank in the 11 years he has been in office. Normally, he would not be in a hurry. But those close to him believe he wants to take advantage of the ‘‘historic opportunity’’ of what could be the last months of the Trump presidency to push through at least a symbolic annexation of a few settlements as his own legacy.

In a meeting on Tuesday with settler leaders who are wary of the Trump plan because it envisages a Palestinian state being established on part of the West Bank and Gaza, Mr Netanyahu privately assured them he plans to go ahead with annexation, while not supporting a Palestinian state. But, in an official statement after the meeting, his office said that “he is committed to negotiations based on the Trump plan, while at the same time pushing forward with the sovereignty plan.”

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