By Arab News
By Osama Al-Sharif*
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trapped in a labyrinth of his own making. He still sees a “historic opportunity” that can’t be missed to go ahead with his plan to do something that no previous premier has dared: To annex territories in the West Bank. The opportunity being the fact that US President Donald Trump’s proposed peace plan allows him to annex major chunks of Palestinian land, including the Jordan Valley.
But that was the easy part. The problems and challenges are piling up, blocking his way as he attempts to meet the July 1 deadline he set himself to go ahead with full or partial annexation. On Sunday, Netanyahu met with 11 settlement leaders who do not oppose Trump’s plan and revealed a number of interesting developments. He said that the White House has not yet given him the green light to go ahead with annexation. He added that the territory to be annexed may be less than what was originally planned, and that maps for the annexation are yet to be drawn.
Moreover, Netanyahu stated that, although Trump’s plan includes forming an independent Palestinian entity, he “does not call it a state.” In short, Netanyahu, who had embraced Trump’s plan when it was revealed at the White House in January, wants to pick and choose certain parts of the plan without committing to anything in return. Not that the Palestinians, the Arab states and the international community back the plan. On the contrary, the Palestinians have rejected it and on Tuesday submitted a counterproposal for a demilitarized state to the Middle East Quartet. President Mahmoud Abbas had also declared last month that all Oslo-related agreements with Israel and the US were null and void. European countries have threatened Israel with sanctions if it goes ahead with the illegal annexation, while Jordan warned of a “massive conflict” with Israel as a result. Key Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE made their position clear in rejecting the annexation, while Riyadh reiterated its support for the two-state solution.
But, ironically, Netanyahu’s real problems come from inside his Cabinet and from the Israeli security and military cadre, as well as from the Israeli public. Last week, a number of settlement leaders expressed opposition to parts of Trump’s plan, while the chair of the Yesha Council, an umbrella group representing Jewish settlers, has said that Trump is no friend of Israel. The settlers object to the plan’s proposal to create a Palestinian state; even when that state will be on less than 50 percent of the West Bank — a noncontiguous mishmash of territories and enclaves with no real sovereignty.
So-called Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Minister Rafi Peretz last week said that Trump’s peace plan has “clauses we cannot accept,” adding that “we will not accept the establishment of a Palestinian state in my homeland. I will oppose any mention of recognition of a Palestinian state in the legislation to come.” In response, Netanyahu told the settlers that, if annexation was brought to a vote before the Knesset, it would be done independently from the other stipulations in Trump’s plan.
Former Israeli military and security officials have warned Netanyahu that annexation would have no real value for Israel but would add security risks. Others have questioned whether Netanyahu understands the political and demographic consequences of annexation on Israel’s survival as a democracy. On Saturday, tens of thousands of Jews and Arabs protested against the planned annexation in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, indicating the rupture that annexation would bring to an already divided Israeli society.
US officials have not recently commented on the planned annexation — not since Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a one-day visit to Israel last month. But a source close to White House officials told this writer that the US position is clear that annexation is part of the plan and not the full plan. The source said that the Trump administration is not committed to the July 1 deadline and that it still hopes the Palestinians will resume contacts to discuss the plan in the coming weeks. If they fail to do this, the US would allow Netanyahu to go ahead with gradual and partial annexation, without being specific. It may be restricted to Israeli settlements as a first phase and may not include the Jordan Valley.
This would present Netanyahu with the exit he is looking for. He would fulfill part of his pledge, satisfy the settlers, and remain uncommitted to recognizing a Palestinian state. Restricted annexation that excludes the Jordan Valley may also save the peace treaty with Jordan.
One would question the wisdom of Abbas’ decision to sever contacts with the White House at this critical juncture. The source told me that Trump would be ready to put everything on hold if Abbas made a telephone call to the Oval Office. The Palestinian side has accepted engaging with the Middle East Quartet at this point, but neither Israel nor the US is showing any interest.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010