Trump holds key to annexation policy

Until Netanyahu reveals his plan for the West Bank, all eyes are on Washington


On Wednesday, the date specified in the Likud-Blue and White coalition agreement for the start of government and Knesset debate on annexation of parts of the West Bank finally arrives, we may finally get around to finding out what Benjamin Netanyahu is planning. Until that day comes, the focus will be on Washington, rather than Jerusalem. Before Mr Netanyahu makes his grand announcement, he needs a green-light from the White House.

But when the JC went to press, the position of the Trump administration was just as opaque. The American ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, rushed back to Washington early this week to take part in the high-level discussions. His position is well-known. Before his diplomatic appointment, he spent much of his free time as a fundraiser in the United States for West Bank settlements. He sees Donald Trump’s presidency as a once in a lifetime, heaven-sent opportunity to establish Israeli sovereignty over parts of the biblical homeland. Another thing Mr Friedman did as a lawyer, before becoming ambassador was to save his client Mr Trump from a series of bankruptcies. He is no mere official.

The positions of the two other main players are less clear. They are Jared Kushner, the presidential special advisor and son-in-law, as well as principal author of the Trump peace plan and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Both are looking at much wider pictures than Ambassador Friedman.

Mr Kushner carried many briefs on behalf of his father-in-law. One of these is the administration’s relations with the pro-western Arab regimes, who are against annexation. He is also in charge of overseeing the response to the Covid-19 epidemic and the president’s reelection campaign; two matters which are not going well, to say the least. The last thing Mr Kushner needs right now is a Middle Eastern headache.

Mr Pompeo, whose main worries currently are dealing with Russia and China, is anxious that Israeli annexation will not be interpreted as the administration having double-standards when it condemns land-grabs by its superpower rivals.

The president’s own position, if he even has one, is not known and a long list of Republican senators, Fox News pundits and evangelical Christian leaders have been enlisted by the supporters of annexation to try and get him to weigh in. On Wednesday, Mr Pompeo said that the decision was “for Israelis to make,” but in Jerusalem they still expect something more specific.

Until word comes from Washington, Israelis are left guessing about Mr Netanyahu’s plans. That’s assuming he already knows what he intends to announce. A senior Likud lawmaker admitted this week that at this point, he doesn’t even know whether the prime minister is planning to move a decision to extend sovereignty to parts of the West Bank through a cabinet decision — as Levi Eshkol’s government did back in 1967, when it annexed East Jerusalem immediately following the Six-Day War — or through legislation in the Knesset as Menachem Begin’s government did when it extended sovereignty over the Golan Heights in 1981.

With the exception perhaps of a tiny circle of close advisors, the uncertainly is complete. The IDF and Shin Bet, have been ordered to prepare for a possible outbreak of violence, but have not been provided with any maps or timelines of what their own government may decide. The diplomats of Israel’s foreign service do not yet have a line to take on the upcoming decision.

Even Mr Netanyahu’s coalition partners, the leaders of Blue and White, Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi have been kept in the dark. Last week Mr Netanyahu presented them with four possible courses of action, ranging from a “maximalists” annexation of the entire 30 per cent of the West Bank envisaged in the Trump plan as becoming part of Israel in the future, to a “symbolic” annexation of a few settlements near the pre-1967 border. He wouldn’t tell them which option he was leaning towards, and they haven’t expressed clear positions yet either.

The obfuscation came out in to the open over the weekend when Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, probably the man closest to the prime minister’s thinking, published an op-ed in the Washington Post. Mr Dermer wrote that “the extension of Israeli sovereignty to certain territories in Judea and Samaria will not, as many critics suggest, destroy the two-state solution. But it will shatter the two-state illusion. And in doing so, it will open the door to a realistic two-state solution.”

Parts of the op-ed were translated in Israel Hayom, a freesheet that slavishly follows Mr Netanyahu’s agenda, but it said there that the sovereignty “will open the door to a solution for the two peoples.” Israelis however can read in English and Mr Dermer’s piece rang alarm-bells for the settler leadership who are against any mention of a Palestinian state, no matter how small and moth-eaten a state (as the one offered in the Trump plan) and no matter that the Palestinians have already rejected it out of hand.

“We are extremely concerned by Dermer’s article,” said Yigal Dilmoni, CEO of the YESHA Council, the settlers’ main leadership body. “We are emphatically against anything that mentions a so-called Palestinian state.” Mr Dilmoni and some of his colleagues have said they would prefer that Israel not annex territory now, though that has long been their desire, if it means acknowledging that a Palestinian state could in the future be established on even part of the West Bank.

Not that anyone at this point is asking the Palestinians. But even their position is unclear. Last month, the Palestinian Authority officially announced it was cutting off all ties with Israel, in protest over the imminent annexation, including security coordination. But beneath the radar, coordination continues. President Mahmoud Abbas said on Wednesday that should it go ahead with annexation, by international law Israel would be responsible for the entire territory, but he failed to spell out whether that would mean the Palestinian Authority would disband, a step he would be loath to take as it would deny him of his main power-base. Ironically, the Palestinian leadership and the settlers now have one thing in common, they both reject the Trump plan in its entirety.

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