US Seemingly Getting Cold Feet Over Israeli Annexations
Amid reported divisions within the Trump Administration, electoral calculations liable to determine if and when White House greenlights Jerusalem’s application of sovereignty over parts of West Bank
The United States is reportedly “highly unlikely” to greenlight Israel’s annexation of about 30% of the West Bank on July 1, the date originally envisioned by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for pressing ahead with the initiative.
According to the unity coalition deal struck between the right-wing Netanyahu and his centrist rival, Benny Gantz, the prime minister can, as of the beginning of next month, hold a vote on applying Israeli sovereignty over Palestinian-claimed territories either in the cabinet or the Knesset, the country’s parliament.
A joint US-Israeli committee is mapping out areas in the West Bank that would be incorporated into the Jewish state, and The Times of Israel news site on Wednesday reported that the process could take up to several more months. (One of the ostensible reasons is the inability of a key American member of the team to travel to the region due to the coronavirus pandemic.)
Moreover, neither US senior presidential adviser Jared Kushner – the architect of the Trump Administration’s peace plan – nor special envoy for the peace process Avi Berkowitz have visited Israel since the proposal was released in January.
Notably, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did make a lightning trip to Israel last month, suggesting that the future status of the West Bank may not be at the top of Washington’s agenda. Indeed, the White House is currently preoccupied with nationwide race-related protests and the economic fallout caused by the global health crisis.
Meanwhile, rumors have been circulating that a faction within President Trump’s inner circle is fearful that the annexations, if advanced, could further destabilize the region.
“I think that in most administrations, and this is a highly dysfunctional one, you’re going to have different points of view expressed, particularly in the face of an Israeli prime minister who himself, in some respects, is quite ambivalent about how to proceed as of the July 1 date,” Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and a former State Department Middle East negotiator, explained to The Media Line.
According to Miller, who also served as an analyst in both Republican and Democratic administrations, the real question is what added value the annexations would bring to Israel given that the country already maintains full administrative and security control over the West Bank regions in consideration.
“The downside is quite clear but the upside less so. If Netanyahu believed his career was over, then this might be a legacy issue; however, I do not think he sees this as being the case,” he elaborated. “Therefore, whether the prime minister moves forward will, in my judgment, be contingent on one factor and that is the position of the Trump Administration. Should Netanyahu be given an unmistakable green light, then he will probably proceed. But currently, there is a yellow light that is blinking because the initiative comes with certain conditions that will create complications among Netanyahu’s constituency.”
Miller also highlighted the fact that the initial target date for the annexations was less than four weeks away, “yet there is no map [outlining potential borders], no detailed planning and no draft legislation. And what we are hearing out of Washington is not necessarily buyer’s remorse, even though there are people within the administration – I think Kushner is certainly in this camp and maybe even Pompeo – who never intended the ‘peace plan’ to be an ‘annexation plan.’ [US Ambassador to Israel] David Friedman seems to be on the other side of the argument but he appears to have – maybe under pressure – tried to walk back signals intensely encouraging a quick resolution to the matter.
“That said, we have not talked about the president, who ultimately makes the decisions and is facing what will likely be a tight election in November. He is liable to leave no stone unturned in his pursuit of victory and the annexations could enter into the calculus given his large Christian base,” Miller emphasized.
Despite condemnations emanating from much of the international community, Netanyahu has repeatedly stated publicly that he intends to push forward with the endeavor sometime next month, although analysts remain skeptical that he would do so without full US backing.
“There have been ongoing discussions at the White House and relevant foreign policy and defense agencies about how to implement the peace plan,” Prof. Eytan Gilboa, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and an expert on US-Israel relations, told The Media Line. “When the proposal was released, there were a number of conditions attached, including that both Israelis and Palestinians had to accept it in its entirety and not pick and choose preferable elements.
“So, if Israel extended sovereignty over 30% of the West Bank, then it would also have to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state over the remaining 70% of the territory,” he said.
Gilboa made clear that the Trump Administration also intended for there to be a high degree of consensus in Israel, both with respect to public opinion and having a large parliamentary majority supportive of the plan. He added that another stipulation calls for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the basis of the “Trump Parameters” that are backed by moderate Arab nations.
“If we look at the full picture, problems arise – not least of them being that the PA has rejected the proposal out of hand,” Gilboa noted. “Also, when Pompeo was recently in Israel he met with [Alternate Prime Minister] Benny Gantz and [his Blue and White political ally] Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. Both of them have voiced concern over moving ahead with the annexations in the absence of widespread coordination, specifically with Egypt and Jordan.”
In fact, Jordanian King Abdullah II has intimated that the prospective move could prompt him to scrap the Hashemite Kingdom’s landmark 1994 peace treaty with the Jewish state.
“Therefore,” Gilboa expounded, “we are now at the stage whereby a decision needs to be made whether or not to [decouple] the sovereignty issue from the rest of the proposal. In this respect, President Trump wanted to prove that he could accomplish what his predecessors could not, and if he gives the approval for Israel to implement only one component of his plan then that would be tantamount to an admission of failure.”
This leads to perhaps the biggest unknown: whether Netanyahu would press ahead without the White House’s blessing. A commonly cited reason by advocates of doing so is that the window of opportunity would close if presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden won the upcoming US election. He is on record as opposing Israeli annexations, a position widely held throughout his political party.
“The impression that many have is that moving forward immediately would be easy, but the issue is very complicated,” Gilboa stressed. “Another [misnomer] is that Trump necessarily feels obligated to give Israel the go-ahead before the US election in order to energize his base. But when looking at his record we see that he already moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Israeli sovereignty over large swaths of the Golan Heights, closed the Palestinians’ diplomatic mission in Washington, and presented a peace plan that is more favorable to Israel than previous ones.
“He does not need to prove anything more,” Gilboa said.
Additionally, experts pointed out to The Media Line that, were the annexations to ignite violence, President Trump would be near-universally blamed and this could, as a corollary, hurt him politically. In such an eventuality his peace plan would have produced the exact opposite result of the one intended: that is, renewed conflict and not reconciliation.
Furthermore, the initiative could greatly complicate President Trump’s central foreign policy goal of countering Iran, which greatly hinges on US cooperation with Sunni Arab countries. These nations could be induced to decrease that coordination while limiting mostly under-the-radar ties with Israel that have been cultivated in recent years primarily with a view to curbing Shi’ite Tehran’s regional adventurism and potential nuclearization.
Meanwhile, all of this comes on the backdrop of growing resistance to the peace plan by members of Netanyahu’s own political camp. On Wednesday, the prime minister slammed one of the settlement movement’s most influential proponents, David Elhayani, who had told the Haaretz daily that President Trump was “not a friend of Israel.”
The heads of Jewish communities located beyond the pre-1967 lines are themselves divided over the US proposal’s call for the establishment of a Palestinian state, with some rejecting this potentiality on principle, believing it would pose an existential threat to Israel.
Then there is PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who has launched a diplomatic offensive geared toward displacing Washington as the main intermediary between the Ramallah and Jerusalem. He has gone so far as to declare all past agreements with Israel null and void, which thickens the plot for the Israeli prime minister as the complete rupture of ties with the PA could have severe consequences.
“I do not think right now it is clear in Netanyahu’s own mind what decision he will make,” the Carnegie Endowment’s Miller concluded. “He is, in many respects, now the Israeli Hamlet: To annex or not to annex, that is his question.”