On Tuesday afternoon, the new defence minister and “alternate prime minister” Benny Gantz arrived at the IDF’s main West Bank headquarters. After briefings, he met a group of Jewish local council leaders, essentially the leadership of the Israeli settlers in Judea and Samaria.
At the end of the meeting, the council leaders gathered for a group photograph with the minister and one of them whispered to him, “Benny. Has Bibi shown you the map?”. There was no need to specify which map. Mr Gantz nodded his head and whispered back, “No.”
The existence of a map which specifies the parts of the West Bank Israel plans to annex has become one of the most urgent questions in discussions among Israeli politicians and settler leaders in recent days. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior American diplomats have said that the map on which a joint US-Israeli committee has been working is not yet ready. No one however is sure whether to believe Mr Netanyahu, who usually keeps his cards hidden.
After all, if he does indeed plan to go ahead with annexation on July 1, surely he must have a map by now of the parts he intends to annex. But if the map exists, no one admits to having seen it.
Mr Netanyahu’s new coalition partners are trying to make it seem they are in the know but have succeeded only in baffling their listeners. To the settlers, Mr Gantz said that the Trump administration wants there to be a broad consensus in Israel over its peace plan. In other words, annexation would need to be agreed upon with them. He then added that, “When we carry out diplomatic moves, we need to carefully listen to what is happening on the ground, and around us, and to safeguard the peace agreements with Jordan for example.”
The next day, in a meeting with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who had arrived in Jerusalem to stress his government’s “serious and honest concern” over annexation, Mr Gantz had an even more convoluted formulation. He said the Trump Plan “represents a historic opportunity” which needs to be taken advantage of “through responsible vision and maximum dialogue with the various parties in the area and as part of wider international dialogue.”
However, there does not seem to be much dialogue as the Israelis and Palestinians are not talking and Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayye announced on Tuesday that the Palestinian Authority would not be paying salaries this month to tens of thousands of civil servants, following the PA’s refusal to receive a transfer of tax revenue from Israel. This was, he said, due to Israel’s condition that the PA renew the security coordination suspended by President Mahmoud Abbas three weeks ago.
“So far there’s been no serious damage caused by the suspension,” said one senior Israeli source. “But if it goes on for a few more weeks, there could be a deterioration in the security situation. However, as things stand now, it doesn’t look like Israel is rushing ahead with annexation since Netanyahu hasn’t given anyone any details on how to prepare.”
If Mr Gantz is indeed telling the truth and all that is holding annexation back is achieving an Israeli consensus, then it may take a while. Two polls carried out over the past week indicate that a lot more Israelis oppose going along with the Trump plan than support it. In a poll conducted by Channel 12, 46 percent were against with only 34 in favour.
Opposition was not only from the centre-left as even among right-wingers, who are in favour of annexation in principle, there is growing reluctance to go along with the Trump Plan which includes entering negotiations on a future Palestinian state on seventy percent of the West Bank.
Naftali Bennett, leader of Yamina, the right-wing party which has not joined the government, as well as Gideon Saar, a senior Likud backbencher, have said they would not vote in favour of annexation as part of the Trump plan, if it meant that the government would also agree in principle to holding talks on a Palestinian state.
One minister said this week that he believes Mr Netanyahu may eventually agree with his Blue and White coalition partners, Gantz and Ashkenazi, and carry out only a small “symbolic” annexation of a few settlements near the “Green Line” — but nothing near the annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank envisaged in the Trump Plan.