Netanyahu’s Annexation Day Arrives, but All That Emerges Is Delay

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JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s push to annex territory in the occupied West Bank entered a critical window on Wednesday, but with his government divided, the White House indecisive and domestic opposition mounting, his allies said that a formal announcement could be weeks or even months away.

International opposition is gaining steam, too: The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, added his name to the list of foreign leaders denouncing annexation, warning in a front-page op-ed in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot that it would be “contrary to Israel’s own long-term interests” and that his country would not recognize any such unilateral move.

Mr. Netanyahu, seeking to cement his legacy, ran for re-election on a promise to impose Israeli sovereignty on as much as 30 percent of the West Bank, land that the Palestinians have long sought for a future state. His coalition agreement with Benny Gantz, the centrist former army chief who nearly defeated him, allowed him to proceed with annexation no sooner than July 1.

But that date came and went Wednesday without any clarification from Mr. Netanyahu about what he intends to annex. The scenarios that continue to be floated in the Israeli news media only raise new questions.

The latest, described as a counterproposal by Mr. Netanyahu to the Trump administration’s original “conceptual map” for possible annexation, showed Jewish enclaves deep in Palestinian-designated territory growing, presumably to appease right-wing settlers who objected to being marooned inside a potential Palestinian state. But it also called for compensating the Palestinians by handing them some of the hills overlooking Ben-Gurion International Airport, which Israeli hawks had once considered too strategically vital to give away.

Other options mentioned include annexing a small, purely symbolic area, taking the entire 30 percent or doing it in phases.

ImagePalestinians in Gaza City demonstrated Wednesday against Israeli plans to annex parts of the West Bank.
Credit…Mohammed Saber/EPA, via Shutterstock

The confusion appears to be hampering the government, too: A National Security Council officer told Israeli radio on Wednesday that Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet had yet to even meet to discuss the potential ramifications of annexation.

Nor have the relevant security officials — including the army chief of staff, the commander of the West Bank division and the head of the Shin Bet internal-security agency — been looped into the discussions, Avigdor Liberman, a Netanyahu rival, said.

Mr. Netanyahu himself signaled that Wednesday would be anticlimactic, saying a day earlier that he would be continuing to work on the annexation plan “in the coming days.” On Wednesday, Ofir Akunis, a Netanyahu ally and lawmaker, said annexation might have to wait till the end of July. And Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, another Netanyahu ally, said annexation could take “months.”

But the window for a unilateral annexation could close in November if Mr. Trump is defeated: Israel would need American support, and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has said he opposes such a move.

At the moment, though, the political obstacles to following through on annexation are formidable.

Some right-wing settlers are in revolt at the Trump peace plan’s contemplation of a Palestinian state of any kind on the West Bank. The White House sent emissaries to Jerusalem this week for a round of meetings on annexation that were described as inconclusive.

The Trump administration has insisted that Mr. Netanyahu gain the agreement of Mr. Gantz, wanting to avoid having the former military leader accuse Mr. Trump of putting Israeli lives in danger while he is battling for re-election.

That condition may be one reason for the delay. Mr. Gantz, who is now the defense minister, has opposed unilateral annexation.

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Credit…Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Gantz’s political support has plummeted since the election, over his promise-breaking alliance with Mr. Netanyahu despite the prime minister’s pending trial on corruption charges. But what remains of Mr. Gantz’s base is overwhelmingly opposed to annexation, so he is taking every opportunity to drag his feet: On Monday, he declared that “anything unrelated to the battle against the coronavirus will wait.”

For his part, Mr. Netanyahu has threatened to break up the government and force a fourth election, which nobody in Israel wants, if Mr. Gantz does not fall in line, or to proceed on annexation without Mr. Gantz’s support. But Mr. Gantz is calling both bluffs.

Mr. Gantz has more than his base on his side in arguing that Israel has bigger fish to fry: Polls show that ordinary voters care far less about annexation than the pandemic, the wheezing economy and a health system that was already overwhelmed before the virus hit.

The July 1 date at least succeeded in mobilizing the loudest voices on the issue. Opponents took out four full-page ads in Haaretz, the left-leaning paper, on Wednesday and plastered the side of a skyscraper at the entrance to Jerusalem with a sign hectoring Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Gantz and the Israeli foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi.

Regavim, a settlers’ group, hung banners in the city showing a pensive Mr. Netanyahu and the slogan “History will judge,” with the words “Yes sovereignty” under a photo of Winston Churchill and “No Palestinian state” below that of Neville Chamberlain, the infamous appeaser of Hitler.

Some who favor annexation, however, accused Mr. Netanyahu of promoting it as a cynical ruse to win a tight election and divert attention from his criminal trial.

Mr. Liberman, a former defense minister who leads the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, said that Mr. Netanyahu’s failure to discuss the plan with security officials revealed his true motives.

“For 14 months, the prime minister shouts and talks about applying sovereignty,” Mr. Liberman said Wednesday. “What turns out is that this whole move is not a move to apply sovereignty, but a public-relations move. Simply electoral theft. Nothing else.”

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