“We have been hearing about sovereignty for a year and a half without things happening on the ground. Today turned out to be one big farce,” prominent Israeli settler leader Yossi Dagan said on Wednesday. For months the first of July had been advertised as the date when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would announce the annexation of much of the occupied West Bank — but he said nothing. Why?
Because sometimes a corpse can be a useful thing, if you don’t actually bury it. Drag it out from time to time, apply a little lipstick and rouge and you can persuade some people that it still poses a threat.
The “two-state solution,” in which an independent Palestinian mini-state shares historic Palestine with the far larger and more powerful “Jewish national state” of Israel, has in principle been the goal of Israeli-Arab peace talks for almost three decades now. Even though it is really long dead.
It was Netanyahu who killed it, the first time he was prime minister back in 1996-99, but he was careful not to put a stake through its heart. The two-state solution was the “threat” he used to mobilize the growing right-wing majority in Israel to vote for him, posing as “Mr Security” who would never let it happen.
Eventually, Netanyahu added another threat to his electoral rhetoric, in the form of an Iran allegedly always on the brink of getting nuclear weapons. He even seems to believe in that one. But the two-state “threat” always remained an indispensable part of his sales pitch, so he must have watched the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency in 2016 with mixed emotions.
Trump, courting evangelical Christian voters in the United States, advocated a bigger Israel that incorporated much of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. This was territory destined to be the home of the future Palestinian state under the two-state solution, so it was the opportunity of a lifetime for Israeli expansionists. But Netanyahu, oddly, was dragging his feet.
Last January, Trump even published his “peace plan,” which gave Israel a green light to annex more territory in the West Bank, where 600,000 Jewish settlers already make their homes. But still Netanyahu sat tight — until three lost elections in one year forced his hand.
He began promising — not for the first time, but much more fervently — that if his Likud Party won enough seats to form a coalition government, he really would annex a lot of the West Bank. It won him enough settler and ultra-religious votes to let him form a coalition third time round — but he was then stuck with his promise of annexation.
The problem with annexation is both national and personal. Since Israel already controls the entire West Bank militarily, and effectively treats the third of the territory that has been taken by Jewish settlers as part of Israel, there’s not much to be gained by annexation, and the costs are high.
First, annexation is illegal, and might trigger sanctions and boycotts against Israel in other countries. Second, it might lead to a new uprising by the several million Palestinians who live in the occupied areas, and a rupture in relations with Israel’s increasingly friendly Arab neighbors, such as Jordan, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps more importantly for Netanyahu, a large-scale annexation of the occupied territory would eliminate the mythical “two-state” threat that has been his greatest political asset — and deprive him of the ability to dangle the prospect of annexation before the settler block again in future elections. He prefers the status quo, and he is now stalling in the hope that he may be able to avoid keeping his promises.
He has ratted on his commitments before, and it could happen again. However, the pro-annexationists in his coalition government and more broadly in the country are panicking as Trump’s re-election prospects in November appear to dwindle. The window seems to be closing, and they want action now.
Netanyahu also desperately needs a success of some sort, as he is currently on trial for corruption. The upshot, therefore, may be a compromise that pleases nobody: a token annexation of a few Jewish settlements near the official Israeli border, and otherwise no change.
Possibly for the first time in history, Netanyahu’s personal and political interests, Israel’s real national interest, and the interest of world peace are all in alignment. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is “Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).”