After repeated “empty promises,” settlers and mayors in the West Bank aren’t holding their breaths
For the past six months, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been seemingly focused on one thing only: the proposed annexation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Ever since the much-anticipated official announcement of the Trump Middle East peace plan in January, Netanyahu has vowed again and again to follow through with his vision of annexing parts of the disputed territories and “fulfilling the Zionist dream.” Immediately after the formation of the coalition government last month, and despite signals from Washington that American support for the move was waning, Netanyahu again promised annexation to his supporters, this time setting himself a deadline – July 1 – as the date in which the process will take place.
But in just a few hours, July 1 will have come and gone and the Israeli government has yet to announce any unilateral moves, major or minor, in the West Bank. In fact, according to several reports, no serious strategic research on the subject has been presented to Netanyahu or his aides by military or intelligence officials, no proposed maps have been revealed, and no specific plan has been presented to the Israeli public. Meanwhile, Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz brushed aside the proposed annexation as recently as Monday, stating that the government he helped erect must first deal with the health and financial crises at hand, before turning to other issues, a statement that managed to both embarrass and infuriate Netanyahu. The prime minister quickly responded by reminding the public that Gantz’s Blue and White party has no say in the matter and that annexation “is not their choice to make.”
While this statement might be technically accurate based on the coalition agreement signed by the parties, Netanyahu has begrudgingly come to realize that Gantz’s influence on the issue is larger than the prime minister had initially hoped. With the White House preoccupied with more pressing matters at the moment – an out-of-control pandemic, widespread protests and dwindling poll numbers – it seems that the annexation move will only be OK’d by the US administration if the entire Israeli government agrees, as an Israeli-wide consensus. On Monday, Netanyahu was forced to admit to Likud members that July 1 will be the date on which the process begins – not concludes.
“A lot of people are going to owe me dinner tomorrow night,” jokes David Elhayani, head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, referring to wagers he made with friends about the odds of an annexation move. “It was obvious nothing was going to happen. We haven’t been updated, nobody knows anything. We haven’t seen any maps, nobody has seen maps. In fact, I’m not even sure there are any maps.” Asked if the unfulfilled deadline itself will cause resentment among his constituents, Elhayani replied: “We aren’t going to be petty about the day; I don’t care if it happens July 1 or 10 or whatever. But we have to see something happening, some movement. People here are sick of empty promises. The prime minister has been promising this for a year, two election cycles. We expect him to show some leadership and stop hesitating.” According to the mayor, now is “a golden opportunity – the world is preoccupied with corona[virus], [there are] financial crises across the globe, everybody is worried about themselves right now. Why not do it?” Despite all this, Elhayani isn’t optimistic. “I’d put it at 80% chance of nothing happening, 20% chance that there’s some annexation,” he wagers one more time.
Residents and business owners in the settlements and towns don’t seem surprised by Netanyahu’s missed deadline either – or disappointed, for that matter.
“The Trump plan is just another way to create a Palestinian state,” complains Mina Hillel, manager of a winery in the settlement of Beit El, who opposes the move altogether. “[Annexing just] the major townships? What would I gain from that?” According to her, most of the settlers she talks to were “not at all looking forward to the plan proceeding. We didn’t see it as an accomplishment. What good will it do for Israel? Security reasons? I don’t buy it. The army could take care of that in a second.”
Regarding any political fallout from the potential fiasco, Mina claims Netanyahu is already vulnerable, despite the polls showing him stronger than ever. “I’ve voted Likud for 20-plus years. Netanyahu has lost the people. Why doesn’t he groom a replacement? People vote for him because there is no decent alternative.”
Orr, manager of a restaurant in Gush Etzion – one of three major settlement blocs that many Israelis assume would be annexed in any future agreement – sees things slightly differently: “As a resident, yeah, I’m a little upset it’s been delayed.” His employees, neighbors and friends mostly seem to endorse the plan, Orr says, and expect some move, even a partial one, to happen soon. “We haven’t been updated by anyone – local officials or anybody else,” he complains.
People close to Netanyahu have reiterated that he sees growing Israel’s territory and applying Israeli law to historic sites across the West Bank as his lasting legacy, the one action he will be remembered for in generations to come. But as the original plan begins to unravel before his eyes, and with his criminal trial inching stubbornly along, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister may soon need to find some other accomplishment to hang his hat on.