Annexation of West Bank areas will be a can of worms that Netanyahu insists on opening Image Credit: Gulf News

The spectre of an Israeli annexation of West Bank territory is not going away just because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to miss the 1 July deadline.

Yes, objection to such an illegal and unilateral move continues to build inside Israel itself, among the Palestinians and Arab states, in the most influential EU countries — some of which threatened economic sanctions — and Britain and among powerful American Jewish groups. But the most deciding factor in forcing Netanyahu’s hands was the White House itself.

The world has come to recognise once more that the issue at hand is not annexation but ending occupation. This is indeed an unintended outcome for the Israeli premier whose entire political career was built on rejecting the notion of a Palestinian state!

- Osama Al Sharif

Last month senior US officials, including, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman met for two days at the White House to decide whether to give Netanyahu the green light to go ahead with some form of annexation as per Trump’s peace plan released last January.

More on the issue

A quid-pro-quo deal

The plan was flatly rejected by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, even though it approved a quid-pro-quo deal: annexation in return for a Palestinian state; a watered-down version of the classical two-state solution embraced by the international community and the Arab states.

The latter also brushed aside the plan through the Arab League. Most European countries ignored it although the EU was unable to adopt a common stand.

During the two-day White House meeting officials were unable to agree to give Netanyahu the go-ahead on annexation. The most divisive issue was that Netanyahu and his coalition partner, alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, had failed to reach consensus on annexation.

Furthermore, while a beleaguered Netanyahu was ready to fulfil his legacy of having enlarged the territory of the state of Israel, he had rejected the issue of recognising a Palestinian state. He was in fact picking what he liked in Trump’s peace plan and ignoring the rest.

Allowing Netanyahu to carry out a controversial and highly divisive move represented a challenge to Trump’s senior officials. Pressure was building up even inside Congress against such a move.

Allies say no

It was deemed dangerous to US interests and a destabilising factor for an already troubled region. America’s closest Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan are flatly against it.

Another major factor that had overshadowed what would have been Trump’s most important foreign policy achievement was something that no one had imagined could happen: The coronavirus pandemic which had put America on top both in terms of infections count and the number of fatalities.

The pandemic had turned things around for Trump: stagnating the economy, resulting in historic unemployment figures and dipping Trump’s approval ratings for his failure to take the virus seriously.

Most polls are in agreement that the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, is ahead in almost every state.

Kushner, who is leading his father-in-law re-election campaign and the main architect of the Middle East peace plan, was worried of the negative impact of annexation on Trump’s chances. Friedman and Pompeo were for the annexation, even as Israelis showed little interest in the entire issue.

Netanyahu too was facing an unpredictable challenge. Like the US, the coronavirus was resurging in Israel, threatening the durability of the country’s health system.

Gantz told Netanyahu that the only priority for the government at this stage is to confront and contain the spread of the virus, which was being felt by most Israelis.

Ironically, the outbreak of hundreds of infections on a daily basis in the West Bank, forcing a second lockdown, was an indication of how closely linked are the fates of Israelis and Palestinians.

Failed negotiations

As a result of the White House meeting, it was decided that a delegation led by special envoy Avi Berkowitz should head to Israel to meet with both Netanyahu and Gantz in a bid to reach consensus. Three days of talks had led to nothing.

There were also divisions over maps and areas included in annexation. Seeing that the White House was not on board, Netanyahu decided to delay the annexation move, for now.

Even though there was a sense of relief both among the Palestinians and across the region Netanyahu was not about to back away from annexation.

He appealed to US Evangelicals, the core of Trump’s voter base, to pressure the White House to give the nod for annexation. Netanyahu is said to have doubts about Trump’s re-election come November. The historic window may be closing soon.

Early elections

As Netanyahu ponders calling for early elections — he and Gantz can’t agree on the state budget for the coming two years — he may still be able to convince Trump to revisit the issue of annexation.

Trump’s own unpredictability and maverick behaviour may overcome any caveats raised by his aides. Almost all former Israeli security and military officials agree that annexation is a bad idea and a can of worms that Netanyahu insists on opening.

But even as Netanyahu rethinks his next move one thing is for sure. He had pushed the Palestinian issue to the forefront even though his intentions were to bury it once and for all.

The world has come to recognise once more that the issue at hand is not annexation but ending occupation. This is indeed an unintended outcome for the Israeli premier whose entire political career was built on rejecting the notion of a Palestinian state!

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.