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Netanyahu may be relieved if his annexation plan is scaled back

Jun 09,2020 - Last updated at Jun 09,2020

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is finding himself trapped in a labyrinth of his own making. He still sees an “historic opportunity” not to be missed to go ahead with his plan to do something that no previous premier has dared to do: annex territories in the occupied West Bank. The historic opportunity being the fact that President Donald Trump’s proposed peace plan allows him to annex major chunks of Palestinian territories, including the Jordan Valley.

But that was the easy part. Problems and challenges are piling up blocking his way to meet the July 1 deadline, set by him, to go ahead with full or partial annexation. On Sunday, Netanyahu met with 11 settlement leaders, who do not oppose Trump’s plan, and revealed a number of interesting developments. He said that the US administration has not yet given him the green light to go ahead with annexation. He added that territory to be annexed may be less than what was originally planned and that maps for the annexation are yet to be drawn.

Moreover, Netanyahu stated that although Trump’s plan includes forming an independent Palestinian entity, he “does not call it a state”. In short Netanyahu, who had embraced Trump’s plan when it was revealed at the White House last January, wants to pick and choose parts and bits of the plan without committing to anything in return. Not that the Palestinians, the Arab states and the international community back the plan, on the contrary, the Palestinians have rejected it and President Mahmoud Abbas declared last month that all Oslo related agreements with Israel and the United States are now null and void. European countries threatened Israel with sanctions if it carries out the illegal annexation while Jordan warned of a “massive conflict” with Israel as a result. Key Gulf states, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, made their position clear in rejecting the annexation, while Riyadh reiterated its support for the two-state solution.

But ironically, Netanyahu’s real problems come from inside his Cabinet and from the Israeli security and military cadre as well as from the Israeli public. Last week, a number of settlement leaders expressed opposition to parts of Trump’s plan while the chair of the Yesha Council, an umbrella group representing Jewish settlers, has said that Trump is no friend of Israel. The settlers object to the plan’s proposal to create a Palestinian state; even when this state will be on less than 50 per cent of the West Bank; a non-contiguous mishmash of territories and enclaves with no real sovereignty.

Last week, the so-called Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Minister Rafi Peretz said that Trump’s peace plan has “clauses we cannot accept” adding that “we will not accept the establishment of a Palestinian state in my homeland. I will oppose any mention of recognition of a Palestinian state in the legislation to come”. In response, Netanyahu told the settlers that that if annexation was brought to a vote before the Knesset, it would be done independently from the other stipulations in Trump’s plan.

Former Israeli military and security officials have warned Netanyahu that annexation will have no real value for Israel but will add security risks. Others have questioned whether Netanyahu understands the political and demographic consequences of annexation on Israel’s survival as a democracy. On Saturday, tens of thousands of Jews and Arabs protested against the annexation in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square; indicating the rupture that annexation would bring to an already divided Israeli society.

US officials have not commented recently on the planned annexation; not since US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a one-day visit to Israel last month. But a source close to White House officials told this writer that the US position is clear that annexation is part of the plan and not the full plan. The source said that the White House is not committed to the July 1 deadline and that it still hopes that the Palestinians would resume contacts to discuss the plan in the coming weeks. Failing to do this the US would allow Netanyahu to go ahead with gradual and partial annexation without being specific. It may be restricted to Israeli settlements as a first phase and may not include the Jordan Valley.

This would present Netanyahu with the exit he is looking for. He would fulfill part of his pledge, satisfy the settlers and remain uncommitted to recognising a Palestinian state. Restricted annexation, that excludes the Jordan Valley, may also save the peace treaty with Jordan. One would question the wisdom of Abbas’ decision to sever contacts with the White House at this critical juncture. The source told me that Trump would be ready to put everything on hold if Abbas would make a telephone call to the Oval Office. The Palestinian side has accepted to engage the Quartet at this point but neither Israel nor the US is showing any interest.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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