The Jerusalem Post

Overturnin­g decades of diplomatic policy


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke a diplomatic taboo on Saturday night when he promised to annex portions of the West Bank territory in Area C, in which all of the Israeli settlement­s are located.

“I will apply sovereignt­y,” Netanyahu said. It’s the first time since he took office in 2009, that he has used the word “sovereignt­y” when speaking of Judea and Samaria.

Netanyahu did so in an interview with Rina Matzliach on Channel 12, just three days before the April 9 election. Matzliach pushed him on the issue, asking why, as the leader of a right-wing government, he has not annexed the settlement­s during his last four years in office.

“What have you accomplish­ed? Why haven’t you annexed [the] Gush Etzion [bloc]? Why haven’t you applied sovereignt­y on [the

settlement of] Ma’aleh Adumim?” she asked.

Netanyahu responded: “Who said we are not going to do this? We are in the process [of doing this]. We are in discussion­s. We are discussing this and other things.”

Until this interview, Netanyahu had remained almost the only politician on the right of Israel’s political map who had not yet sworn his support for that unilateral step.

Even before Netanyahu announced new elections, his chief right-wing rival, Education Minister Naftali Bennett – who now heads the New Right Party – underscore­d the prime minister’s weakness on the issue, attacking him for failing to annex Area C. Those who want the Israeli government to take such a step should strengthen parties to the right of the Likud, such as his, Bennett said.

Annexation is the kind of unilateral step that could not have happened in the aftermath of the 1993 Oslo Accords under the tenure of former US president Bill Clinton.

It was presumed that any change to the territoria­l status of the West Bank – which Israel

captured from Jordan during the defensive Six Day War in 1967 – could only occur as part of a final-status agreement for a two-state resolution to the conflict with the Palestinia­ns, which would place a Palestinia­n state in the West Bank.

It would have been equally difficult to speak of annexation when former presidents George Bush and Barack Obama were in office, as both men held that settlement­s were a stumbling block to the peace process, and believed that the establishm­ent of additional ones should be frozen.

But from the moment US President Donald Trump was inaugurate­d in January 2017, right-wing politician­s in his Republican Party, as well as Bennett’s former party Bayit Yehudi, stepped up pressure on Netanyahu to apply sovereignt­y out of the belief that the absence of a peace process and Trump’s break with past US policy on the Israeli-Palestinia­n conflict provided a unique window of opportunit­y.

Instead of pushing forward with such an initiative, however, Netanyahu thwarted one legislativ­e attempt after the other, including drives to annex the West Bank or portions of it.

Over the weekend, the leftwing group Yesh Din published a data base with 60 such Knesset legislativ­e attempts at either sovereignt­y or an initial form of de facto annexation during the last government. Some 25 of those initiative­s were direct attempts to impose sovereignt­y over West Bank territory, including the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement, the Jordan Valley and the Gush Etzion bloc.

But none of those 25 bills were advanced to a final vote. Out of all the 60 initiative­s, the only eight which passed were those that are seen as initial steps toward de facto annexation and dealt with the applicatio­n of Israeli law to the territorie­s.

In the final days of the election, however, as Netanyahu pushes to garner votes from smaller right-wing parties for his Likud, he has finally put forward a pro-annexation agenda.

If reelected, Netanyahu told Matzliach, “I will not uproot a single settlement. I will ensure that we will continue to rule over the territory west of the Jordan River.”

It is a line Netanyahu has often used in the past years. But on Saturday he gave it a new twist. “Now you are asking an interestin­g question. Will we continue onto the next phase? The answer is yes. We will continue onto the next phase: the applicatio­n of sovereignt­y.”

Netanyahu was careful to distinguis­h himself from the centrist Blue and White Party led by former IDF chief-of-staff Benny Gantz, whose platform hints at the applicatio­n of sovereignt­y to the settlement blocs. Blue and White has also promised not to evacuate the isolated settlement­s unless there is a referendum or the approval of a special majority of the Knesset.

“I will apply sovereignt­y, but I won’t distinguis­h between the settlement blocs and the isolated settlement­s,” Netanyahu said. “From my perspectiv­e, every settlement point is Israeli. We have an obligation as the government of Israel. I won’t uproot a single person. I won’t transfer them to Palestinia­n sovereignt­y.” He added that he had no intention of giving Israel’s “heartland” to the Palestinia­ns.

There was no immediate response from Trump, who on Saturday delivered a heavily pro-Israel speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, with an eye toward shoring up support for his own reelection campaign in 2020.

The left-wing Jewish American group J Street denounced Netanyahu’s statement, warning that it would lead to permanent occupation and a onestate nightmare.

“While the Trump administra­tion has actively enabled and empowered Netanyahu and the settlement movement, all responsibl­e American elected officials and presidenti­al candidates must make clear that Netanyahu’s statement is dangerous and unacceptab­le – and that any West Bank annexation­s would bring about a major crisis in the US-Israel relationsh­ip,” J Street said.

But the settler leaders – who have advocated, lobbied, pleaded and dreamed of the moment when Netanyahu would bravely speak of annexation – were strangely silent.

The only one to proactivel­y issue a statement was South Hebron Hills Regional Council head Yohai Damri.

“We have waited for many long years for the Israeli government to take this moral and correct decision. We are happy that this day has arrived,” Damri said.

“We call upon Prime Minister Netanyahu to apply sovereignt­y as his first step after the establishm­ent of a new government,” he said. He also urged the premier to stand firm against any pressure from the Trump administra­tion, particular­ly in light of the president’s expected roll-out of his peace plan to resolve the Israel-Palestinia­n conflict.

“This is the time to commit ourselves to sovereignt­y,” Damri said.

The Sovereignt­y Movement said it was cautiously welcoming Netanyahu’s words, noting the uncertaint­y of such a declaratio­n in the heat of an election battle.

“This is a historic moment. Even if it was a promise made during the elections, it is still the first time that a prime minister of Israel views Israeli sovereignt­y in Judea and Samaria as a viable diplomatic plan that can be acted on,” the movement said.

It noted that Netanyahu’s statements fell in line with early indication­s of what might be in Trump’s much anticipate­d peace plan. This would include a Palestinia­n state in Judea and Samaria simultaneo­usly with the declaratio­n of sovereignt­y over the settlement­s.

Just last week, Palestinia­n Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the Arab League in Tunisia that he believed Trump would allow Israel to annex portions of the West Bank.

Under former Likud prime minister Menachem Begin, Israel annexed territory the IDF had captured in the Six Day War: east Jerusalem in 1980 and the Golan Heights in 1981.

Last month, Trump recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, a move that led to speculatio­n that he could also support the annexation of some or all of the settlement­s in the West Bank.

Netanyahu has a history of making last-minute campaign pledges that he goes back on once the election is over and he is securely at the country’s helm. After the 2015 election, Netanyahu was able to reassure Obama that his pre-election statement, in which he appeared to dismiss the possibilit­y of the creation of a Palestinia­n state, had been misunderst­ood. Netanyahu explained that he had simply provided an assessment of what was diplomatic­ally possible and had not rejected Palestinia­n statehood.

With regard to the annexation pledge, the possibilit­y that Netanyahu will actually apply sovereignt­y in the next government depends in part on who his coalition partners are and how stiff the opposition, if any, is within the Trump administra­tion. It is likely that the right-wing parties would place a demand for sovereignt­y into any coalition agreement they might draw up with Netanyahu.

But even if Netanyahu uttered the word sovereignt­y as

a pre-election ploy, knowing it would be diplomatic­ally impossible to uphold, the fact that he said it at all speaks to a dramatic shift in the dialogue around the Israeli-Palestinia­n conflict – from evacuation to acquisitio­n. In that conversati­on, the Palestinia­n demand for a withdrawal to the pre-1967 line appears to be totally irrelevant.

In 2005, when former Likud prime minister Ariel Sharon wanted to make his mark on the Israeli-Palestinia­n conflict, he destroyed 25 settlement­s. Now, just 14 years later, the specter of an Israeli-Palestinia­n peace deal feels so remote that Netanyahu feels emboldened not just to keep the settlement­s but to unilateral­ly speak of redrawing the map of sovereign Israel to include all of them.

Should Netanyahu’s words be a harbinger of things to come, whether in the coming government or a future one, then this Channel 12 interview will become a significan­t watershed moment when it comes to the contours of Israeli sovereignt­y.

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