A new Israeli government has been created at last, albeit mostly made up of the old one: the country’s leadership is currently split between Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu and The Blue and White’s Benny Gantz, a government sure to have its points of strength as well as serious weaknesses. Above all it came as a compromise to avert a fourth general election, and may not hold together to the end of its term. Its main point of strength is the wider political base and support it enjoys in the Knesset. The main weakness will be its shaky leadership as Netanyahu awaits criminal trial, due to start next week. This government is expected to face many challenges as legal, economic and health issues come fast and hard.
The new government’s top priority is the annexation of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
In introducing his government to the Knesset on Sunday May 17, Netanyahu assured every one that “the time has come to apply sovereignty to Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria… This won’t distance peace, it will bring it closer. These settlements will be part of Israel in any scenario.”
The rise of the Israeli Right and the weakness of the Palestinian struggle are feeding into the annexation plan. The dream of annexation has likely never been closer to realization. In fact, Netanyahu wants it to be the legacy he is remembered for and associated with. He wants to be remembered as the longest serving prime minister and the one who made Israel great.
Less favorable views
The issue of annexation has recently been subject to intense discussions between Israel and its American and European allies. The US sees it as part of a negotiation process between the Israelis and the Palestinians on the basis of the President Trump Peace Deal, and doesn’t prefer a unilateral annexation, in order to at least to give negotiations a chance.
This position was established during US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s one day visit to Israel on May 13 when he met with both Netanyahu and Gantz and urged them to have the annexation implemented through negotiations rather than unilaterally. According to a State Department spokesperson, Pompeo reiterated the US’ policy that annexation “is up to Israel” but said it should be part of the Washington brokered “peace process”. Pompeo also raised some urgent security issues that should keep the Israeli government busy for a while, mainly in Syria where Iran has a strong military influence. Israel is not yet in a position to risk American support. The US is also trying to help bring the Palestinians to the negotiation’s table through a policy of persuasion and pressure with the help of its Arab allies.
At the end of Pompeo’s visit he said that he and Netanyahu will talk about the US’ “vision for peace”, and added: “There remains work to do to make progress on that, and I am looking forward to it.” On the other hand, Netanyahu said that the new government is “an opportunity to promote peace and security based on the understandings I reached with President Trump”, which implies that the Israeli PM is keeping his channels open with the President of the US.
The Europeans are almost united on the idea that annexation would hamper efforts for a two- state solution based on UN Security Council Resolutions. EU foreign ministers in their meeting on May 15 agreed that a unilateral action should be avoided and international law should be upheld.
Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, said in a virtual news briefing that the EU would work to discourage any possible initiative toward annexation. Borrell also said that the EU and individual member states would reach out to the US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority on this matter using all possible channels. Although some countries suggested taking action against Israel if it goes ahead with the plan, any decision needs the full support of all member states, which is almost impossible in the case of Israel.
Earlier in May, ambassadors from EU countries including Germany, France, Netherlands, Italy and Spain, together with the UK, held a meeting with officials at the Israeli Foreign Ministry to express their concerns about the annexation.
Although the UK has left the EU, it considers the annexation of occupied territory a violation of international law as set out in UN Security Council Resolutions. The House of Lords International Relations and Defense Committee has called for economic action by the British government against Israel by placing some limits on the preferential-trade agreement between the two countries.
Jordan and the PA
The Arab response to the Israeli annexation plan has been mostly in the form of verbal or written statements denouncing the Israeli policy. The Arab league held a virtual meeting for foreign ministers of member states on April 30. The meeting resulted in issuing a statement that equated the plan to a new war against the Palestinian people. As usual, the statement did not specify any action to be taken if the plan is implemented.
On the Palestinian front, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas threatened to walk away from all agreements with Israel and end all forms of coordination with the Jewish state including security if the deal is pushed, but things have been quiet ever since. On May 16, a crucial meeting of the Palestinian leadership that was scheduled to take place in Ramallah to discuss a series of measures in response to Israel’s West Bank annexation plan was postponed until further notice.
Palestinian officials said it was necessary to wait until after the swearing of the new Israeli government that was also postponed to Sunday, May 17. Others attributed the postponement to pressure from Arab countries aiming to give a chance for diplomacy rather than confrontation.
In fact, only King Abdullah ll of Jordan has been campaigning vigorously against the Israeli plan. It was rumoured that he was also behind the decision to delay the meeting. King Abdullah ll warned that “if Israel really annexes the West Bank in July, it would lead to a massive conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.”
More time is needed
As a result, instead of pushing the annexation plan forward by the new government, it seems that recent discussions have pushed it back further. Both Netanyahu and Gantz may need more time to rethink the annexation plan before a bill to apply Israeli law to Jewish settlements in the West Bank is presented to the Knesset for a vote. The weeks up to the end of June will prove very critical to the annexation plan. Israel may put up with any noise made by the Europeans, but many see it very difficult for it to work against the advice of the Americans and risk losing their support.
It seems that both Netanyahu and Gantz are rethinking the timing of the annexation. However, the question is not whether Israel will extend its sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, but when. It is more likely that the annexation bill will not go before the Knesset until after July 1. This is not going to be easy for Netanyahu who will come under intense pressure from the religious parties and the associations of settlers in the West Bank and Jordan Valley. They are lobbying aggressively to have the annexation done as soon as July and removing any possibility of establishing a Palestinian state even in accordance with Trump’s extremely Israeli-biased peace deal terms.
Those in Israel who speak against the annexation plan are very few, very weak and have offered no alternative solution regarding the governance of Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank including the Jordan Valley and Area C. Moreover, the Arab Joint List leaders are torn apart between loyalty to a proposed vague Palestinian state and the reality of the elected members of the Israeli establishment. The domestic balance of power is in favour of Netanyahu and his allies.
Containment of the Palestinians
Since the Oslo accords in 1995, Israel has been applying a policy of aggression and containment on Palestine. In the last few months the containment component has increased dramatically. The coronavirus outbreak is presenting the Israeli government with a golden chance to increase contacts and cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and with Hamas administration in Gaza.
Parallel to the annexation plan, Israel is escalating its policies of Jewish settlement expansion and containment of the Palestinians. After weeks of relative calm, three people were killed in the West Bank in recent days, an Israeli soldier and two Palestinians, one of which was a child. The return of violence coincides with increasing housing activity in settlements, old and new, especially around Jerusalem, Hebron and Bethlehem.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah has no where to go in the fight against coronavirus but to ask for Israeli help, and Israel is exploiting the situation to the maximum. Israel has extended healthcare and financial support to help to the PA to cope with the challenge and it also is providing healthcare assistance to Gaza.
It was clear that Israel was also behind last month’s decision by the United States to offer a special $5 millions grant to the Palestinian Authority to fight the coronavirus. This decision went against current American policy under which financial aid to the Palestinians was frozen more than two years ago. US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said that the money was meant to help hospitals and Palestinian families.
Israel also agreed an advance payment of $230 to the Palestinian Authority on the tax revenue it collects from Palestinian workers. The money will help the PA to cope with financial difficulties resulting from the pandemic. Under the agreement, the money will be transferred in four monthly installments starting in May.
The coronavirus outbreak has proven conducive to Israeli-Palestinian coordination. The two sides have agreed to set up a fast track channel of communication for data exchange. Israel is informing the PA on Palestinians who were diagnosed with coronavirus while in Israel, and is also providing it with names of Palestinians who returned from abroad via either Ben-Gurion Airport or the Allenby Bridge crossing with Jordan. This is a new kind of coordination that goes far beyond security and reach out to the heart of the Palestinian community through municipalities, hospitals, healthcare centers, doctors, nurses and patients.
One aim of this policy of containment is to stop the PA from collapse and chaos. As the PA is nearing the point of bankruptcy, Israel has a vested interest in providing help. Israel would have to provide civilian services for 2.6 million Palestinians living in the West Bank if the PA collapsed.
According to the World Bank, the Palestinian economy is expected to contract by 2.5% in a best case scenario. It estimated that the contraction rate could be as high as 7% if the COVID-19 crisis continues for over four months. The Palestinian Authority needs $120 million just to deal with the medical needs. After that it is estimated that the PA’s debt could exceed $1 billion. The PA has estimated that the debt could go as high as $1.4 billion and has been crying for help for more than a year.
Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, a quarter of the Palestinian workforce was already unemployed and 24% of Palestinians lived below the poverty line on $5.5 a day, the World Bank said. The coronavirus has only made matters worse, which has been a strong reason for the Palestinians to believe that coordination with Israel is vital.
As the Israelis celebrate 72 years of their Jewish state and the Palestinians remember their plight over this period, the future of the conflict between the two peoples is still hiding much more than has been revealed, but the obvious fact is that Israelis are winning and that containment is slowly becoming bilateral coordination of Israeli supremacy, a situation which may soon become the new normal in Israeli – Palestinian relations.