Will he or won’t he? This is the question looming over Israel these days concerning Prime Minister Netanyahu’s declared aim to start annexation in the West Bank on July 1st. US President Donald Trump started the ball rolling with his recent “Deal of the Century” that allocated 70% of the territory for a Palestinian state, and the remaining 30% to Israel. Now Trump has signaled that he is not opposed to Israel acting unilaterally. By giving this green light, the US President has actually put Bibi on the spot to do something.
On the other hand, Israeli Left-wingers and most European countries are opposed to a unilateral step by the Jewish state. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas flew to Israel, where he cautioned Netanyahu about the consequences. (The EU is Israel’s biggest foreign trade partner to the tune 34 billion euros annually, and therefore could respond with trade sanctions.)
Moreover, neighboring Jordan (that actually invaded the West Bank in 1948) is populated by a majority of Palestinians. To his credit, former-King Hussein is the sole Arab leader who granted full citizenship to Arab refugees who fled (Palestine) after Arab armies tried to wipe the newborn Israel off the map. Jordan later signed a peace treaty with Israel, but its current monarch could face a violent Palestinian backlash demanding that he abrogate the peace treaty. Egypt, the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, could also face similar domestic unrest if Israel starts annexation. Next in line are the Gulf States, first and foremost Saudi Arabia, that has been quietly forging ties with Israel.
Naturally, these are all crucial considerations that Netanyahu must weigh. On the other hand, he has signaled his Right-wing political base that, with a sympathetic president in the White House, now is the time to start annexation. Whatever the risks, it would appear that the PM has now gone so far he would lose credibility with his Right-wing supporters if he does nothing. This at a time when he desperately needs this popular support while on trial in an Israeli court.
So, our considered guestimate is that Bibi will opt for a moderate step, such as the annexation of Jewish communities adjacent to the former Israeli-Jordanian ceasefire lines. This could include towns like Maale Adumim near Jerusalem and Gush Etzion, whose Jewish residents were massacred in 1948. Remember, former US President George Bush publically declared that such population centers should remain part of Israel.
Such a partial annexation would likely have the backing of Bibi’s key coalition partner, the Blue and White party. Moreover, this is where Defense Minister Benny Gantz could also weigh in. The former IDF Chief of Staff and most military experts agree that the Jordan Valley Basin, located opposite the seven-miles-wide Coastal Plane of Israel, is a vital security area. Therefore, it should remain under Israeli control. So far, Gantz has not taken a position on the annexation issue. Still, it is likely that if he and his sidekick, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi (also a former IDF Chief of staff) give their backing, it will add considerable weight in comparing the Jordan Valley Basin as no less a vital security interest than the Golan Heights (that has previously been annexed by Israel).
Meanwhile, Israeli opponents to annexation took to the streets with a big demonstration in Tel Aviv. They contend that annexation will open the back door to apartheid if full rights are not granted to Palestinians in areas under Israeli governance.
Summing up: After reporting on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for nearly 50 years, my conclusion is that the Palestinians prefer not to have their own independent state if this entails recognizing Israel as the rightful and historic homeland of the Jewish people. The fact is that if the Arab residents of Palestine and the Arab world had accepted the UN partition plan of 1947, they could have had an independent state alongside Israel. Instead, they tried to wipe the Jewish community off the map, that is when Jordan invaded the West Bank.
More recently, Labor party leaders, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak, all sincerely tried to reach peace with the Palestinians (one Israeli Right-wing fanatic was so convinced that Yitzhak Rabin was determined to recognize an independent Palestinian state that he shot dead the Israeli leader). Until this very day, the Palestinians have not been willing to accept the Jewish state of Israel. The result is now the emergence of Netanyahu’s annexation plan that itself may also end as a “March of Folly.”