For three elections in a row, Benjamin Netanyahu shaped his entire campaign with a signature, incendiary pledge — put him back in the prime minister’s seat and he would annex wide swaths of the occupied West Bank into Israel’s permanent borders.
For months, the Israeli leader has bragged about his closeness to US president Donald Trump, whose recognition of the annexation would bless the unilateral action — illegal under international law — with the legitimacy of US approval and shrivel the amount of land for any future Palestinian state.
But a fortnight after his self-imposed deadline for annexation passed, Israel’s right wing fears that the narrow window for pulling off the endeavour — balanced precariously between the US election calendar and Israel’s quickly unravelling fight against coronavirus — is closing.
“Never since the establishment of the state has a nationalist government bowed and surrendered like this to the Americans,” Yossi Dagan, a settler leader, said this week, protesting at the delay.
The five-time prime minister had vowed that by July 1, Israel’s newly elected Knesset would start debating this “historic opportunity”.
But with US elections looming in November and the Trump administration battling a widening coronavirus outbreak, Mr Netanyahu is still awaiting confirmation from Washington that maps sent to Jared Kushner, an ally of Mr Netanyahu and Mr Trump’s envoy for Middle East peace, meet American approval. “It’s on the [US] agenda, I assure you,” said an aide to the Israeli prime minister this week. “But it’s a crowded agenda.”
Israel’s Channel 13 reported last week that during talks between Mr Netanyahu and the US administration, the Americans tried to “downplay the enthusiasm” for annexation, citing unnamed sources.
Benjamin Netanyahu had shaped his election campaigns on a pledge to annex wide swaths of the occupied West Bank © Gali Tibbon/Reuters
Meanwhile, Arab opposition to the plan has united with European condemnation to underline the costs of the ambition: an Emirati diplomat warned in a Hebrew newspaper that it would endanger Israel’s growing ties with Gulf states, and Germany’s foreign minister warned that the EU would see the move as a grave violation of international law.
“Netanyahu triggered the perfect storm — a totally opposed Arab response, a totally opposed European response and more than hesitant American response,” said a senior Arab diplomat, adding that both the Russians and the Chinese also made their opposition clear. That raised the stakes considerably for Mr Netanyahu. “Nobody is going to approve of this, say this is a great move — instead, he would have pay a heavy price in terms of his international credibility without necessarily achieving much.”
This week, the EU put teeth to its objections by approving millions of euros in grants to Palestinians wanting to build public infrastructure on the land that Mr Netanyahu seeks to annex, called Area C, which makes up 60 per cent of the West Bank and is still administered entirely by the Israeli army.
For Israel’s rightwing establishment, which has long sought the normalisation of the sprawling settlement enterprise that picked up steam after the 1993 Oslo Accords, the reasons for the delay lie with Mr Netanyahu. About 650,000 Israeli Jews live in dozens of settlements on land wrested from Jordanian control in 1967. Settler leaders want Mr Netanyahu to annex immediately, while waiting for US approval to arrive later.
The prime minister has a long history of championing rightwing causes ahead of elections, only to delay or abandon them after winning. Rightwing leaders worry now that annexation will be added to a catalogue of Mr Netanyahu’s betrayals.
“I think if the prime minister were to get his house in order and make it clear that this was a priority for Israel, then this is something that can happen,” said Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative think-tank that has championed annexation. “It’s definitely not the case that it’s cancelled, but it is certainly the case that we are in the midst of an unprecedented geopolitical crisis with the coronavirus.”
The Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim in the occupied West Bank © Menahem Kahana/AFP
Others, including Anshel Pfeffer, who has written a biography of Mr Netanyahu, have argued that the entire project was an electoral ploy of the rightwing stalwart, who was fighting for his political survival and still faces the prospect of conviction on charges of corruption in an ongoing trial.
“At a certain point, Netanyahu may seriously have thought that this would be his historical legacy,” said Mr Pfeffer, author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu. “But that’s only possible if the move is blessed by the Americans, and right now he doesn’t have the green light, and the administration doesn’t have the interest.”
Mainstream Israeli society does not particularly care either: polls have repeatedly shown that voters place the threat of coronavirus to their health and to the economy ahead of any other concern.
A recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute showed about a third saying they were undecided on annexation, and a quarter opposed. The quarter who supported the move dropped by half when told that annexation would require Israel to sanction the creation of a Palestinian state, something the US plan theoretically envisions.
“You can say definitively there was never a majority among the Israeli public,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion expert who has worked on eight Israeli election campaigns.
The impasse has an advantage for Mr Netanyahu. He can search for candidates to shoulder the blame — from his centrist-coalition allies to settlers demanding more land to be annexed — while waiting for a politically opportune moment to rekindle the issue.
But, said Mr Kontorovich, who has advised the prime minister and US secretary of state Mike Pompeo to move rapidly with the plan, if Mr Netanyahu abandons it, “this time, the rightwing will not forget”.