Israeli unity government likely to proceed with annexation in months to come

Netanyahu and his right-wing allies want to seize this moment because the stars have all aligned for them.
Sunday 26/04/2020
Israelis walk past an election campaign billboard for Blue and White candidate Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, last February in Ramat Gan, Israel. (AP)
Now the diplomatic impasse. Israelis walk past an election campaign billboard for Blue and White candidate Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, last February in Ramat Gan, Israel. (AP)

The April 20 deal to form a unity government in Israel between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his rival, Benny Gantz, may bring some stability to Israel’s highly fractured politics but is likely to put a nail in the coffin of a two-state solution as Israeli annexation of settlements in the West Bank will most likely proceed in July as part of this deal.

In a surprise move, Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, reneged on his promise not to join a government with Netanyahu at the helm and decided to do just that. Gantz’s decision not only led his partners in Blue and White to bolt from his party (Gantz’s faction has now been reduced to 19 out of 33 Blue and White members who won Knesset seats), but has also given a green light to Netanyahu and his right-wing allies to proceed with annexation after having insisted that he be given veto power over such policies.

The unity deal allows Netanyahu to remain prime minister until October 2021 at which point Gantz will take over that post. In the interim, Gantz would become defence minister, while his Blue and White ally, Gabi Ashkenazi, becomes foreign minister.

In addition, Gantz’s faction will also have the justice, media, cultural and economic portfolios, while Netanyahu’s faction will have the finance, health, public security, construction and housing, transportation and education portfolios.

Because Netanyahu’s right-wing allies are angry that so many prominent cabinet positions are being allotted to Gantz’s faction, the Israeli leader agreed to create even more cabinet portfolios — 34 in total — the largest in Israel’s history, to accommodate them. Although the unity deal including these cabinet portfolios will have to be enacted by the Knesset, there are likely enough votes for all of this to be approved soon.

It appears that one of the reasons why the right-wing parties went along with this agreement is because Gantz caved on the issue of annexation of settlements, which has long been a goal of these parties as well as Netanyahu’s Likud.  The unity agreement stated that, beginning on July 1, Netanyahu will be allowed to bring the issue of “extending sovereignty” (essentially meaning annexation) to the West Bank for discussion in the cabinet and a vote in the Knesset.

If there was any doubt over what he signed up for, Gantz issued a statement that said, “from July, the presiding prime minister will be allowed to bring President Trump’s statement with regard to the realisation of Israeli sovereignty to government and Parliament, following due process.”

Significantly, the unity deal allows only this issue — annexation — to be brought up during the first six months of the unity government outside of coronavirus-related legislation.

Gantz has been sharply criticised by his former allies as well as the Israeli peace camp for “being played” by Netanyahu. Although Gantz was able to secure prominent cabinet positions for his faction and himself, his deal with Netanyahu not only gives the Israeli leader another chance to remain prime minister and possibly try to seek an immunity with a corruption trial hanging over his head but also makes a two-state solution virtually impossible, as annexation of settlements could encompass about 30% of the West Bank.

Netanyahu and his right-wing allies want to seize this moment because the stars have all aligned for them.

US President Donald Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan, unveiled on January 28, endorses annexation, and the beginning of July, when the Israeli government plans to move ahead with cabinet and Knesset approval of it, coincides with the intensification of the US presidential election campaign.

Trump reiterated his charge a few days ago that the Democrats are the “anti-Israel” party, and more of such rhetoric is expected.

Moreover, given the uncertainty of Trump’s re-election in November, the summer is the opportune time, from Netanyahu’s perspective, to start the annexation process, while the Trump team is still in place.

Indicative of this support, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on April 22 said “we’re glad there’s now a fully formed government” in Israel, and underscored that annexation “is an Israeli decision,” but “we’ll work closely with them.”

As David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has written, Pompeo’s statement “suggests that the Trump administration will be a partner rather than an obstacle in this regard and will not block Israeli application of sovereignty.”

While Trump will tout this stance in an effort to solidify political support from Christian evangelicals and conservative elements of the American Jewish community, liberal American Jews have taken a different position.

In early April, 140 American Jewish leaders sent an open letter to Gantz and Ashkenazi, coordinated by the pro-peace Israeli Policy Forum, calling on them to “remain steadfast” in opposing annexation in any unity government.

That Gantz did not do so has not lessened this opposition to annexation, which gives Biden, the presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee, political cover to criticise both Trump and the Netanyahu-led government on this issue.

This is all the more reason, in Netanyahu’s mind, to proceed with annexation in July and present it as a fait accompli, knowing that Biden, even with his strong pro-Israeli record, is opposed to the Trump plan, especially the annexation clauses.