US dilemma as Ne­tanyahu seeks White House ap­proval

Arab News - - Opinion - OSAMA AL-SHARIF

The White House is in a bind over whether to sanc­tion Is­rael’s planned an­nex­a­tion of parts of the West Bank, as sug­gested by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s peace plan that he pre­sented in Jan­uary. Se­nior US of­fi­cials in­volved in the is­sue last week met for two days in Wash­ing­ton to dis­cuss whether or not to give Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu the green light to go ahead with some form of an­nex­a­tion. The meet­ings ex­posed deep di­vi­sions within the ad­min­is­tra­tion. One rea­son for them de­lay­ing a de­ci­sion was the fact that Ne­tanyahu and his coali­tion part­ner, Benny Gantz, are yet to agree on what the an­nex­a­tion should en­tail.

Under the coali­tion agree­ment reached in March, Ne­tanyahu does not need Gantz’s ap­proval to put the an­nex­a­tion law to a vote in the Cab­i­net and Knes­set any time af­ter a dead­line passes on Wed­nes­day. But the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion in­sists that the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment be united on this is­sue. Ne­tanyahu needs Trump’s back­ing be­fore he in­dulges in one of the most con­tro­ver­sial — and il­le­gal — moves of his long reign as premier. The threat of an­nex­a­tion (the far right and ar­dent Zion­ists call it “ap­pli­ca­tion of sovereignt­y”) has en­raged Arab and

Euro­pean coun­tries. The Pales­tini­ans have re­jected Trump’s plan al­to­gether and sev­ered ties with the White House. Jor­dan warned that any form of an­nex­a­tion would re­sult in a “mas­sive con­flict” with Is­rael, with whom it has a peace treaty and eco­nomic ties. Saudi Ara­bia un­der­lined its position in sup­port of the two-state so­lu­tion based on the Arab Peace Ini­tia­tive. More than 1,000 law­mak­ers from across Europe called for coun­ter­mea­sures against Is­rael if it car­ried out any form of an­nex­a­tion.

But even if these re­ac­tions were not enough to rein in Ne­tanyahu, then the fact that only a mi­nor­ity of Is­raelis, about 27 per­cent, sup­port the move should. In fact, a number of prom­i­nent former mil­i­tary and se­cu­rity of­fi­cials warned that an­nex­a­tion would be a bad idea that brought no ben­e­fits while putting the coun­try at risk both do­mes­ti­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally. The logic be­ing that Is­rael has been the de facto ruler of the West Bank for the last 50-plus years and con­tin­ues to be treated as a nor­mal state by the rest of the world. It is build­ing and expanding set­tle­ments while co­op­er­at­ing with the Pales­tinian Author­ity (PA) de­spite the ab­sence of a peace process. Why risk all that?

Ne­tanyahu wants to set a prece­dent even if an­nex­a­tion is sym­bolic and grad­ual. While pay­ing lip ser­vice to the idea of a Pales­tinian state, which is flatly re­jected by Jewish set­tlers and far-right Is­raelis, he con­tin­ues to blame the Pales­tini­ans for fail­ing to ne­go­ti­ate. The re­al­ity is he wants to pick and choose from Trump’s peace plan: Going ahead with an­nex­a­tion while blam­ing the Pales­tini­ans for not em­brac­ing the US pres­i­dent’s “re­al­is­tic” of­fer.

As things stand, the White House is look­ing for a “sweet spot” where it can find a face­sav­ing path for Ne­tanyahu to carry out some form of an­nex­a­tion, while mak­ing sure that the Pales­tini­ans and the Arabs re­main on board. As a step in that di­rec­tion, Jor­dan and the Pales­tini­ans have been in­formed that the Jor­dan Val­ley, which con­sti­tutes more than 20 per­cent of the West Bank, will not be an­nexed at this stage. More­over, there is chat­ter among top Is­raeli cir­cles that, come the dead­line on Wed­nes­day, Ne­tanyahu will an­nounce that an­nex­a­tion will be lim­ited to one or two ma­jor Jewish set­tle­ments ad­ja­cent to Jerusalem.

Will that be enough to pla­cate the Pales­tini­ans and the rest of the world?

An­nex­a­tion is a clear vi­o­la­tion of in­ter­na­tional law, UN res­o­lu­tions and the Geneva Con­ven­tions. It also shifts the de­bate from the real is­sue, which is oc­cu­pa­tion. It kills the idea of a vi­able, con­tigu­ous and sov­er­eign

Pales­tinian state. It iden­ti­fies Is­rael as an apartheid state, rul­ing over in­dige­nous peo­ple with­out giv­ing them civil and po­lit­i­cal rights. For Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas, who chose to break ties with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion rather than en­gage it, the choice can only be to dis­band the PA and hand over re­spon­si­bil­ity of ad­min­is­ter­ing the Occupied Ter­ri­to­ries back to Is­rael as an oc­cu­py­ing power. For Is­rael, this would be a po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic disas­ter.

Some key US of­fi­cials, and Amer­i­can Zion­ists, ap­pear to have re­al­ized that uni­lat­eral an­nex­a­tion would be a bad idea and a li­a­bil­ity for Is­rael. The ideal way for­ward would be to put a freeze on the whole thing, for now, pend­ing the out­come of Novem­ber’s US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. But Ne­tanyahu, who is said to have doubts about Trump’s re-elec­tion chances, would hate to miss what he sees as a his­toric op­por­tu­nity. The en­tire project is now in limbo, as do­mes­tic Is­raeli pol­i­tics make it dif­fi­cult for Ne­tanyahu to make a move in any di­rec­tion.

The US can con­tinue to in­sist that Ne­tanyahu and Gantz reach an agree­ment, which un­til now seems im­plau­si­ble, or throw the gaunt­let down to the en­tire world and al­low Ne­tanyahu to walk freely into what is in fact a po­lit­i­cal mine­field.

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