A perfect storm of domestic Israeli politics combined with the changing of the guard in Washington could create an opportunity for those advocating annexation to finally make their move.
Senior Israeli government minister Naftali Bennett announced on Sunday that he will introduce legislation to effectively annex Israel’s third-largest settlement in the West Bank, Ma’ale Adumim, by the end of January. It is safe to assume, that when Bennett says “by the end of January,” he means after the January 20 inauguration of Donald Trump.
Bennett’s desire to incrementally annex parts of the West Bank are neither new nor secret. The chairman of the Jewish Home party has run on a platform of annexation since he first ran for office in 2013 and in every election since. Through short videos and aggressive sound bites, the Israeli education minister has attempted shift the public discourse, in Israel and around the world, toward his annexationist aims.
Bennett has also been clear that he does not expect to annex the West Bank in one fell stroke. “This is a process,” Bennett explained at the Brookings Institute two years ago. “I’m not suggesting that, you know, one day in midday we just [annex]. There’s a process of changing the global view of what’s going on here and it has to start with that… And it takes time. It’s an uphill battle.”
Other politicians have also been surprisingly open about the need to take a piecemeal approach to annexation. Former member of Knesset in Bennett’s Jewish Home party Orit Struck, during her time in parliament, along with senior Likud politician Yariv Levin, formulated a 10-step plan to advance annexation in the West Bank. One of the first stages was annexing individual settlements like Ma’ale Adumim.
Ayelet Shaked, also of Bennett’s Jewish Home party and now Israel’s justice minister, in the past advocated annexing the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. More recently she announced plans to apply Israeli civil law to the occupied territories, which is considered de facto annexation (the West Bank is currently subject to Israeli military law). A few months ago Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely made a direct demand of her government. Similar pleas and plans can be heard on an almost daily basis throughout the Israeli government and ruling coalition, not to mention in right-wing circles and media outside the government. And while demands from within the government to advance annexation have become the new normal in recent years, for a variety of reasons they are often dismissed as fringe or unrealistic.
There are two main political reasons why the chorus within the Israeli government calling for various iterations of annexation should be treated more seriously this time around. The first, and most obvious, is the incoming Trump administration in Washington.
Since his election, President-elect Trump has been sending clear signals that his administration’s policy toward Israel, and especially the settlements, will be markedly different from that of Barack Obama, John Kerry, and, one would conclude, the previous eight American presidents since Israel occupied the Palestinian territories in 1967. The president-elect has not minced words, tweeting in response to John Kerry’s 75-minute admonition of Israel’s settlement policy: “Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”
Stepping back from Twitter, of course, things are not so clear cut. Trump has also indicated that he hopes (or plans) to take yet another stab at America’s longtime foreign policy pastime: trying to broker an improbable peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. If Trump has any peacemaking aspirations, it would not be logical for him to support even modest Israeli moves toward annexation. That said, Israel has not historically been all too bothered by the prospect of angering American presidents — Democrat and Republican alike — over its settlement policies, so the prospect of Netanyahu defying even Trump on the settlements position is not all that farfetched. Nor is Trump known for classically linear logic.
The second, and more important reason we should be taking the growing chorus of annexation-talk more seriously has everything to do with domestic Israeli politics and Benjamin Netanyahu’s most dominant trait: political survival. Naftali Bennett does not head a particularly large party, and on his own he is fairly limited in his ability to force policy on Netanyahu. Where Bennett knows he can be more successful, however, is in slowly shifting this government’s direction by challenging Netanyahu’s right-wing credentials.
Benjamin Netanyahu was not supposed to win the last election. By many indicators, his Likud party was expected to come in second place, behind Isaac Herzog’s Labor/Zionist Union party. Netanyahu pulled off an upset victory with a last-minute pitch to voters of other right-wing parties arguing that only a vote for him could ensure a right-wing government. In other words, Netanyahu owes his seat to voters who could just as easily have cast their ballots for Bennett. Furthermore, Netanyahu’s Likud party has moved considerably to the right in recent years, in part due to a large-scale effort to encourage settlers to join the Likud – precisely for this purpose.
The result is that the prime minister is constantly angling to portray himself as more and more right wing, both to satisfy the ranks of his own party, but also to stop Bennett and the Jewish Home from out-flanking him from the right. That is why after declaring just how dangerous the settlement outpost “normalization law” was, Netanyahu himself wound up voting in favor. Bennett’s victory was in getting the bill onto the Knesset floor, where he knew Netanyahu — for intra-right-wing political considerations — would have to vote in favor.
If Bennett plays his cards right, there is a decent chance he could pull off a similar maneuver toward limited annexation. If Bennett manages to get his Ma’ale Adumim bill on the Knesset floor with the right timing, he could once again corner Netanyahu politically. Even if the bill is eventually shelved, he could at least extract a consolation prize or two in its place, such as support for legalizing settlement outposts, approving settlement construction elsewhere, or taking bureaucratic steps to further entrench de facto Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank.
The timing for such a move is riper than ever. Netanyahu is staring down a number of serious scandals at the moment – he will be investigated by the police this week for allegedly accepting illegal gifts – and he is wary of being attacked on more than one front at a time. It would be politically expedient for the prime minister to ensure that his coalition partners, especially those to whom he can lose votes, don’t rock the boat as corruption investigations and submarine scandals pose even the perception of a threat to his throne.
Benjamin Netanyahu knows that his grasp on power is directly correlated to opposing land concessions, Palestinian sovereignty, and the very idea of a two-state solution. He has repeatedly demonstrated as much by opposing all of those ideas before an election, only to reverse course immediately thereafter. If he senses that his premiership is at all in danger, he won’t hesitate to leverage his right-wing cachet. In today’s political climate, that means loosening the reigns on Bennett and the annexationists in his government.