After over a year of back and forth, and multiple stalemates, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz have finally come to an agreement, paving the way for the establishment of a Likud-Kahol Lavan unity government. Their first order of business? Annexing the West Bank.
Israeli media reported on Monday that Netanyahu and Gantz agreed on a plan to begin formally annexing parts of the West Bank, as early as this summer.
According to Haaretz, the two rivals agreed that Netanyahu could bring an annexation proposal before the cabinet for a vote as early as July 10, on the condition that the move is supported by the United States, and “done in coordination with other international players.”
If the cabinet approves the proposal, it would come before a full Knesset vote, where it is likely to receive a majority of support from Israeli lawmakers who have largely adopted Netanyahu’s annexation policies.
Ever since the first round of Israel elections last year, annexation has been a major topic of discussion, with both Netanyahu and Gantz promising voters that if elected, they would annex large swaths of the West Bank, including the Jordan valley which makes up approximately one-third of the occupied territory.
When US President Donald Trump released his peace plan in January, he gave the green light to Israel to move forward with unilaterally annexing more Palestinian land, a move considered to be illegal by the international community.
In an urgent letter to Gantz and other Israeli MKs, Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now urged the lawmakers to veto any annexation proposals that come their way, saying it “would have grave consequences for Israel’s future.”
“As coalition negotiations continue, red lines need to be drawn to prevent the adoption of an extreme right-wing agenda,” the group said, adding that “annexation would not just violate international obligations, but also compromise Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and critically endanger existing agreements and regional harmony with Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority.”
Head of the Arab-majority Joint List, MK Ayman Odeh tweeted his opposition to the move, saying:
“Gantz’s submission on the subject of annexation is the most serious of all. This means eliminating any chance of peace and the establishment of an apartheid state with Jewish citizens and Palestinian subjects. Democracy, equality and social justice all depend on just peace and the end of the occupation.”
Coronavirus provides perfect cover
With the entire globe focused on fighting the coronavirus pandemic, analysts say Monday’s agreement is part of a strategic effort by Netanyahu to accomplish his right-wing agenda, under the guise of addressing the COVID-19 crisis.
“The coronavirus pandemic has been the biggest gift to Netanyahu,” Palestinian political analyst Dianna Buttu told Mondoweiss.
“Israel is treating the crisis as a ‘war’, and during wartime it’s easy for everyone to rally behind the person who is in office, including the very person (i.e. Gantz) who said he would never sit in a government with Netanyahu.”
With unrivaled support, Netanyahu is able to advance annexation plans, which Buttu says he is urgently trying to push forward before the US elections go into full swing later this year.
“If there’s any time to go forward with annexation, it’s now, when everyone is focused on something else,” Buttu said.
Additionally, with the entire West Bank under lockdown due to a COVID-19 outbreak that has so far infected 260 Palestinians, Israel will face much less resistance to its plans in the form of protests and grassroots activism.
“With everyone being ordered to stay in their homes, grassroots resistance is hindered,” Buttu noted. “Israel is using this opportunity to continue its occupation practices such as night raids, arrests, and home demolitions, and all the while activists cannot come together to protest or protect their communities because of the coronavirus.”
While the situation on the ground won’t immediately change if the Knesset approves an annexation bill, once the coronavirus pandemic is over, the reality on the ground in the West Bank will shift dramatically.
According to Buttu, the number one thing that will change as a result of annexation, will be the ease through which settlers will be able to expand their boundaries in the West Bank.
“Building homes in Ariel settlements will become just as easy as building a new development in Haifa,” she said.
“Instead of having to navigate through the military apparatus, and get Knesset and military approval before any new construction, settlements will soon be able to get a simple municipal approval in order to build more homes and take more Palestinian land.”