Ten days ago the big news from Israel was that Benny Gantz was abandoning his opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu amid the coronavirus emergency and they were moving to form a “unity” government of former rivals, with a strong and all-Jewish majority: Netanyahu’s rightwing bloc of 58 seats + 15 or so of Gantz’s shattered centrist Blue White party.
Now the days pass and no Israeli government! Why not? The news from Israel is that Netanyahu is negotiating under a lot of pressure from his right wing to use the Trump window, which may be closing soon, to annex the West Bank; and Gantz has folded. The main stumbling block to a new government are judiciary issues touching on Netanyahu’s indictment.
“It seems sadly we are inching closer an closer to a reality we have worked hard to prevent,” Adina Vogel-Ayalon of J Street said today: what liberal Zionists call annexation, but the right calls “sovereignty” (and the left calls the one-state reality).
Nancy Pelosi needs to act now and call Benny Gantz to head off the possibility, Tal Shalev of Walla News told a J Street webinar.
Shalev that Netanyahu has had a “brilliant” month politically and Gantz has folded again and again on negotiations over annexation, so that today it seems his Blue-White partner Gabi Ashkenazi is the only real block to annexation. Shalev said the agreement-in-progress between Gantz and Netanyahu for a new governing coalition gives Netanyahu authority and power to move ahead with annexation whenever he wants “while consulting with Gantz and consulting with the international community.” Consultation means nothing, Shalev said. “Gantz will say that there are some limitations, but it seems like that’s more of a mask, and it seems that Gantz acceded to all Netanyahu’s demands on annexation.”
Gantz tried to block annexation but failed repeatedly as “Netanyahu said forget about it,” Shalev said.
Gantz’s political difficulty is that there is a solid (all-Jewish) majority in the Knesset for annexation, and Trump is for anything Israel wants to do, so the moment is now. Netanyahu has a strong hand because Gantz already gave up his political capital; coronavirus has made Netanyahu a popular emergency leader and; Netanyahu can always hold out for a fourth election in which his chances are even better, given the breakup of Gantz’s Blue White party.
Nimrod Novik, a foreign policy veteran, told J Street that negotiations are changing by the minute, but the latest terms are for a three-month freeze till July 10, on annexation.
On top of that, Netanyahu got good news today when Amir Peretz of Labor, who commands three seats, said he will join the Netanyahu bloc for annexation. So Gantz has lost political capital on the supposed liberal-Zionist side to stop Netanyahu.
“Labor is officially a dead party. Amir Peretz merged his three seats into Gantz’s Blue-White party,” reports Lahav Harkov.
Novik lamented that annexation has gone from “the whims of a messianic minority” a few years ago to being all but Israeli policy. “It’s unbelievable.” And even limited annexation “will end almost inevitably with us controlling the entire territory and the 2.6 million Palestinians.”
Though Netanyahu hasn’t annexed any territory in ten years, the pro-annexation forces are inside his Likud party, not just on the far right.
Trump-joy contributes to the moment, because Israelis have gotten the feeling that they are “invincible” and can do anything they want and there are no consequences, Shalev says. Benny Gantz was so afraid of this feeling that he never came out against annexation in the recent campaign, met with Trump on friendly terms, and “never presented a strong alternative” to annexation.
Liberal Zionists regard annexation as a disaster because it would officially end the two-state solution in the eyes of the world. Besides presenting Israel with a whole set of security challenges related to the loss of a puppet authority, the Palestinian Authority, in the West Bank, and the potential loss of Jordanian cooperation with Israel on Palestine’s eastern border and on the Haram-al-Sharif too, or Temple Mount in occupied Jerusalem.
Novik called on Democrats in the United States to act: “You’d better act to deter this.” Threaten Israel with the end of bipartisan support for Israel among Democrats and Republicans, by doing things “we won’t be able to accept,” and maybe politicians will wake up.
“Why doesn’t Nancy Pelosi pick up the phone, call Benny Gantz?” Shalev said, and tell him, “This could be very, very dangerous. That would be more substantial pressure, with all my due respect” to the liberal Zionists who are threatening Israel with consequences. “Start communicating with Gantz as a real player.”
While Novik said that the cost of annexation would be 52 billion shekels a year to Israel, or about $12 billion, four times the American security assistance. “Let that sink in,” Novik says.
Liberal Zionists are treating this as an emergency. The Israel Policy Forum board of directors implored Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz not to join a government that will annex territory in the West Bank. IPF writes as proud Zionists who have “devoted our lives” to supporting Israel.
We write to you as American Jewish communal leaders who are proudly Zionist, unquestionably pro-Israel, and who have devoted our lives to supporting the State of Israel and ensuring an ironclad relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.
In the midst of this unprecedented health and financial crisis for Israel, we respectfully urge you not to use the need for unity in the face of emergency to create a different crisis for Israel by moving forward on unilateral annexation.
The IPF says that annexation would really wreck the relationship with American Jews (who have become more and more distant from the Jewish state):
Should annexation be advanced, the majority of American Jews who oppose such a policy will feel more alienated from Israel as a result. Just as we expect that our own government focus on the crisis at hand without using the fear and uncertainty felt by Americans to push through harmful and unrelated policies, we ask that the leaders of the Jewish state to which we are all so committed do the same.
The foreign policy establishment in the U.S. is also responding. Colin Kahl formerly of the Obama administration:
Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s growing concern that the right wing in Israel will push for annexation, perceiving a shrinking window to do so. Doing so would be profoundly unjust, costly, & dangerous. It would also jeopardize bipartisan US support for Israel.