(Written by David M. Halbfinger)
As Israelis get ready to go to the polls Tuesday, a stark, fateful and long-deferred choice has suddenly reappeared to confront them after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unexpected promise to begin extending sovereignty over the West Bank if he is re-elected.
Do voters want to make permanent their country’s control over the West Bank and its 2.6 million Palestinian inhabitants? Or do they want to keep alive the possibility that a Palestinian state could be carved out there one day?
That question has been made newly urgent by Netanyahu, who is facing a career-threatening challenge from a unified centrist party headed by a team of former army chiefs. His shocking announcement about Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank appeared to be a last-ditch effort to rally his right-wing base and stay in power.
For supporters of annexation, it is not only this week’s vote that is on their minds but the US election in 2020: They call President Donald Trump’s staunch support for Israel a “historic opportunity” to proceed with annexation of some, much or even all of the West Bank — but one that comes with a ticking countdown to a possible new administration in Washington.
Two-state proponents, while conceding that there is no way to know for sure how the Palestinians would react, say a sovereignty push would almost certainly lead to a nightmare of one kind or another for Israel, like a rise in violence and international condemnation.
The incremental entrenchment of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land is often called “creeping annexation.” And until now it has occurred slowly enough, and piecemeal enough, to let supporters of a two-state solution reassure themselves that such steps could still be undone or accounted for in future negotiations.
Applying sovereignty, by contrast, would be all but irreversible.
Whether accomplished quickly or by degrees, it is tantamount to annexation, and it would break with a quarter-century-old agreement, under the Oslo accords, that the status quo between Israel and the Palestinians must not be altered except through negotiations.
For years, Netanyahu positioned himself as a check on both sides in the debate. He placed himself to the right of supporters of a two-state solution on the one hand, and to the left of those who want to annex the West Bank and see a Greater Israel fulfill the Zionist dream of a Jewish state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.
Those Israelis were once marginalized as part of the right-wing fringe. But with fewer than half of Israelis still supporting a two-state solution, it is the peace camp that is now out of step with the majority of society. A fast-growing sovereignty movement, called Ribonut in Hebrew, has not only achieved political acceptability but has overtaken much of the powerful Israeli right wing.
No fewer than 60 bills pushing some form of annexation have been offered for a debate in parliament since 2015, according to the human rights group Yesh Din.
“Support for declaring Israeli sovereignty over parts or all of Judea and Samaria has become the litmus test for all leaders of the right,” said Michael B. Oren, a deputy minister under Netanyahu who is not running for re-election, using the biblical names for the West Bank.
Adherents of the sovereignty movement contend that the closer Israel has gotten to a two-state solution, whether in pulling out of Gaza or in redeploying its forces out of much of the West Bank, “the more death and bloodshed it has brought us” in uprisings, suicide bombings and rocket attacks, as Ribonut says on its website.
Every other member of Netanyahu’s Likud party seeking re-election had already embraced annexation. Their leader was the lone holdout.
Saturday night, under intense pressure in a neck-and-neck contest with a centrist former army chief, Benny Gantz, Netanyahu gave in. Lunging further to his political right, he declared on national television that he would indeed begin to “apply sovereignty” in the West Bank.
“The question you’re asking is an interesting one: Will we move on now to the next stage?” he told an interviewer. “And the answer is, yes. We will move on to the next stage.”
Asked if he would extend Israeli law over the settlement blocs — large Jewish communities built on the West Bank that even many two-state supporters assume the Palestinians would give up in trade for other Israeli territory in an eventual deal for their own state — Netanyahu said he would not stop there.
“I’m going to apply sovereignty, but I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and the isolated settlement points, because from my perspective every such point of settlement is Israeli,” he said.
The morning after, few Israelis were taking Netanyahu at his word. There is a term for his eleventh-hour pre-election surprises: the “gevalt campaign,” as in the Yiddish “Oy, gevalt,” used to express incredulity or weariness.
In 2015, Netanyahu rallied his base by sowing fears of a big turnout by Arab-Israelis that would hand the government to the left. This time, many see him as trying to induce the right wing to come to his aid with a promise to fulfill a settler dream.
“This is Bibi being Bibi,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel under Democratic and Republican presidents, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
Gantz, along with three other leaders of his Blue and White Party, two of them also former army chiefs, all forswore any such unilateral moves on the West Bank. They said that Netanyahu was merely trying to save his political skin, and that no Israelis were foolish enough to believe him.
Indeed, analysts quickly speculated about the loopholes through which Netanyahu could slip free of his new commitment: dragging his feet on the promise to avoid interfering with a potential Trump peace proposal; arguing that changing circumstances made it no longer workable; or acceding only to the subtlest incremental applications of Israeli law to the territories, but nothing that equated with formal annexation.
Michael Koplow, an analyst for the left-leaning Israel Policy Forum, likened Netanyahu’s remarks to a famous 2009 speech he gave at Bar-Ilan University in which, under pressure from President Barack Obama, he declared his support for a two-state solution.
It was a high-water mark for his openness toward a Palestinian state, and he has effectively been retreating from it ever since. But the Israeli left cited it for years afterward to pressure Netanyahu to keep a two-state option alive.
Now, Koplow said, the right will be able to squeeze Netanyahu over his televised promise to proceed with annexation moves, “and I don’t think he’ll be able to wiggle out of it.”
Netanyahu is also much weaker than he was 10 years ago. He faces a likely indictment on corruption charges, including bribery, which could force him from office. He has been widely expected, if the election result gives him the chance, to try to form a governing coalition that would enact retroactive legislation preventing a sitting prime minister from being prosecuted.
That could set up a trade-off with his coalition partners: a get-out-of-jail-free card in exchange for concrete steps on annexation, said Daniel B. Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel under Obama.
“The parties he will need to form this coalition can now insist that he follow through on sovereignty, in return for protection from the indictments,” Shapiro said. “He’ll try to provide the minimum; they’ll try to extort the maximum.”
Shapiro added: “And there’s no evident check coming from the Trump administration, as there always had been under every previous administration, saying, ‘Don’t do that.’”
In response to the rise of the sovereignty movement, two-state supporters have warned loudly of a domino effect that any annexation would set in motion, whether limited to a few big settlements, the Israeli-administered portion of the West Bank known as Area C, or the West Bank as a whole.
“It will be taken by the Palestinians, by the other Arabs and by the international community as an Israeli national decision to slam the door on a two-state solution, on a negotiated agreement,” said Nimrod Novik, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Shimon Peres who sits on the executive committee of Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group of retired senior military and national security officials who support a two-state solution.
The toppling dominoes, the group predicts, would begin with a wave of West Bank violence, the refusal of Palestinian security officers to continue cooperating with Israel, the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and the necessary re-occupation of the entire West Bank by the Israeli military — an operation that would take weeks and require the entire standing army, more or less.
Even more serious, if Palestinians in annexed territory are not granted citizenship, it could pave the way for the kind of apartheid state that two-state supporters have long warned against.
Sovereignty proponents insist that annexation of settlement blocs like Maale Adumim or Gush Etzion would actually meet little international or Arab resistance because of the expectation that those areas would remain in Israel under a two-state outcome.
But Koplow said this was deceptive.
“Once you start down this annexation road, it’s not going to stop at the blocs,” he insisted. “And that’s where the real danger comes in.
“If the Israeli government annexes Maale Adumim, the sky isn’t going to fall. And when that happens, the next step is going to be the overreach. There’ll be a big push to annexe Area C. And once you do that, that’s the whole ballgame.”