Things move fast in the Middle East.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just declared victory for the fifth time, and now, as he gets busy building the next coalition for the 21st Knesset, much attention has shifted to the day after—based on what Netanyahu said the day before—in which he made the groundbreaking claim that he would move to begin annexing some of the disputed territories. The questions now focus on whether Netanyahu will follow through on his campaign pledge and what his election win means for U.S. President Donald Trump’s much-anticipated “deal of the century” for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told JNS that a lot depends on domestic politics and what pressure the right-wing parties will place on Netanyahu.
He noted that Netanyahu said he may carry out such an annexation at a later stage and certainly did not mean immediately. “It all depends on what kind of freedom of action he has domestically, as well as in the international arena, and he will have to decide what areas are important in terms of security and in terms of Israeli consensus,” said Inbar.
Ronni Shaked, senior correspondent and commentator on Palestinian Affairs for the Hebrew daily newspaper Yediot Achronot and a researcher at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute, seemed more concerned about the potential decision. He told JNS that “this will cause a lot of problems. The Palestinians will be very angry. For the Palestinian people living in the West Bank, not one will recognize it—no one in the world will recognize it.”
Shaked also said he did not think that the United States would recognize an Israeli move to annex any part of the West Bank.
He said any effort by Netanyahu to annex parts of the territories would “risk the nation of Israel from a democratic Jewish point of view.” He also warned of Israel losing its identity as a democracy—that it would be “marching towards becoming an apartheid state.”
However, Inbar noted that “annexation of the West Bank or parts of the West Bank has been on the agenda of every Israeli government, including Labor-led governments because [they] want the settlement blocs as part of Israel.”
So far, he observed, Netanyahu has been “very careful.”
In terms of the Trump-administration peace plan, Inbar said Israel just doesn’t know much yet.
“It will probably deviate from the Clinton parameters that everyone until now assumed would be the basis for a final settlement. It will move the goalposts,” he said. “This is basically good for Israel. Any Israeli government will, of course, say yes, and any reservations it has will be registered. The Palestinians have already said no, and they will continue with their rejectionism.”
Inbar added that “perhaps in another few months, the Americans will eventually realize that they cannot generate enough Arab pressure or even American pressure on the Palestinians” to convince them to accept a peace deal.
Inbar pointed to two main dynamics at play with regard to the above questions. The first is what will the American reaction be in response to Israel’s annexation of any part of the territories? The second is who will replace Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, and what effect could this might have on future peacemaking prospects? These two dynamics will strongly shape future Israeli decisions on both annexation and peace.
“Time will tell. We will see,” he concluded.
‘It sends an important message’
Eugene Kontorovich, a scholar at Forum Kohelet and a professor at George Mason Antonin Scalia Law School, told JNS that “Netanyahu’s promise to apply Israel civil law to Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria leaves out a lot of details—when, where and so forth. But it sends an important message.”
He emphasized it was important to point out that “Netanyahu did not say ‘annexation’ because one cannot annex what already belongs to you. He speaks properly of more robustly applying Israeli sovereignty, which already exists.”
Agreeing with Inbar that the Palestinians appear to uphold a policy of rejectionism, Kontorovich also noted that the Palestinians “are the only national independence movement to ever turn down an internationally backed offer of statehood in any part of the territory they claimed.”
“Netanyahu’s statements are a sign that Israel will not continue to hold the status of these communities in limbo for decades while the Palestinians say no,” he said.