It could prove to be the most important telephone call in Benjamin Netanyahu’s waning political career. Recently the Israeli prime minister called US President Donald Trump telling him that “we must seize the historic opportunity to annex the Jordan Valley” and urging him to recognise the strategic area as the eastern border of Israel. The two men also discussed the possibility of setting up a defence pact between the US and Israel.
Netanyahu, the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history, is fighting for his political life as he faces a possible trial on charges of corruption, bribery and breach of trust by the country’s general prosecutor.
He has less than a month to ask the Knesset for immunity, but since he, as head of the Likud, and his Blue and White rival, Benny Gantz, have each failed to form a government following last September’s general election, the second this year, it now looks like the country is heading for an unprecedented third poll early next year.
The political impasse has derailed Netanyahu’s plans to fulfil an election pledge to annex the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea territory. As he heads a transitional caretaker government, his hands are tied for now. But free gifts from the White House keep coming despite the internal political turmoil.
It now appears that Netanyahu may have received the green light to go ahead with his annexation plan once the political dust settles in Israel. Facing leadership challenges from within his Likud party, Netanyahu will now focus on his own survival.
Two weeks ago US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered one such free gift by stating that the US no longer considers Israeli colonies in the West Bank as illegal or in violation of international law. Netanyahu called Trump to thank him for this decision which has infuriated the Palestinians and was rejected by the Arab League, the EU and most world capitals including Moscow and Beijing.
Following last Sunday’s call it now appears that Netanyahu may have received the green light to go ahead with his annexation plan once the political dust settles in Israel. Facing leadership challenges from within his Likud party, Netanyahu will now focus on his own survival. He has pleaded with Gantz to form a national unity government that would allow him to carry out the annexation bid.
“That’s why I’ve made Benny Gantz an offer — let’s realise these historic opportunities in a unity government that we establish right now in the format I’ve suggested. I’ve gone very far [in political concessions] toward this goal, because we must realise these opportunities,” Netanyahu said last Monday.
Gantz has so far resisted such offers. His Blue and White coalition was formed primarily to unseat Netanyahu and end his decade-old monopoly of Israeli politics. The so-called kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Yisrael Beiteinu party, has refused to back either man and his mission for the last year was aimed at deposing Netanyahu.
It goes without saying that annexation of the Jordan Valley, which comprises one third of the West Bank and over 60 per cent of Israeli occupied territory, will kill any remaining hope for an independent Palestinian state. Currently there are 65,000 Palestinians living in that area and they, if the annexation plan goes ahead, will likely be displaced.
Since he took over the White House, Trump has been giving Netanyahu, who has never embraced the two-state solution or the Oslo Accords, everything he wanted without asking anything in return.
This includes the unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv, the attempt to defund UNRWA, the suspension of aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and NGOs working in Palestinian areas as well as the closure of the PLO’s office in Washington.
All these free gifts were handed over even before Trump had disclosed details of his deal of the century to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. By sanctioning the annexation of the Jordan Valley, the Trump administration would have sealed the fate of any peace negotiations and a possible settlement.
This is why Jordan in particular has become a major critic of Netanyahu in recent years. Only a few weeks ago King Abdullah said relations between his country and Israel were at their lowest. He had also warned that the annexation of the Jordan Valley will have direct negative impact on the peace treaties Israel has with Jordan and Egypt.
Another clue to how Trump is playing into Netanyahu’s hands is the recent disclosure that the US is operating a field hospital in Gaza. The Likud and the Far Right in Israel claim that a Palestinian state does exist in Gaza.
Last week newly appointed Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett announced that Israel will confiscate Hebron’s Arab vegetable market to build units to house Jewish settlers. It’s an indication that annexation of Hebron could be next on Netanyahu’s menu.
It is imperative that Jordan and Egypt take the lead in opposing Netanyahu’s scheme. But they can’t do it alone and both Trump and Netanyahu must realise the high political cost for both their countries if such a scheme goes ahead. For now the Europeans must at least put the issue of the recognition of a Palestinian state on the table as a response.
— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.