The common view in Israel is that Benjamin Netanyahu has been moving further to the right since his stunning 2015 election win. However, a closer look suggests that this shift has been more tactical than strategic, favoring style over substance. On core issues and at key junctures, the prime minister has largely stayed the cautious course that has been his trademark for years.
But, faced with a menacing legal maelstrom, the risk-averse Netanyahu may finally consider a truly dramatic move to ensure his political survival. Hence, for the first time under his long rule — and even absent the spectre of early elections — Israeli annexation of West Bank territories may be squarely on the table.
Netanyahu could have formed a right-wing government shortly after the elections, had he wanted to. Yet it took him nearly two months to cobble together a coalition, after seeking a deadline extension and engaging in futile contacts with the center-left Zionist Union. Netanyahu has traditionally opted for moderate partners that enabled him to play the role of “responsible adult” amid the bickering of conflicting government factions. But the surprisingly wide margin of his 2015 victory made a coalition with the left impossible to justify to his rightist electorate.
As expected, with Netanyahu now part of the moderate wing of his coalition, he found himself in a constant battle to assert his right-wing credentials. Some commentators have quipped that he is certain to make a statement on any issue once Minister Naftali Bennett, a rightwing stalwart, addresses it. Pundits have also noted Netanyahu’s escalating rhetoric against leftist opponents, and the surge of contentious bills introduced by the prime minister’s Likud party.
Yet the notion of Netanyahu’s rightward turn is largely a misconception. Bombastic right-wing legislation bids have often started with a bang only to end with a whimper, either watered down or stalled indefinitely. Moreover, Netanyahu has stuck to a restrained policy in facing an ongoing wave of Palestinian violence, capitulated on the installation of metal detectors on Temple Mount, and has thus far resisted all calls for West Bank annexation.
Netanyahu could have been expected to continue along this prudent path, had it not been for his legal woes. With evidence against him mounting, former aides cutting deals to testify against him, and police recommendations to indict him on bribery charges, Netanyahu is facing an increasingly desperate struggle to stay afloat. Not one to give up without a fight, the prime minister has lashed out at his detractors while tenaciously playing up his achievements. Some observers have warned that he will not shy away from drastic maneuvers to save his skin.
Imposing Israeli sovereignty in some areas of the West Bank could pay significant dividends for the beleaguered Netanyahu. Such a move would shore up his right-wing base, position him as the undisputed champion of the settlers, and mollify coalition partners pressing for more action. Moreover, annexation will likely elicit a left-wing outcry, allowing Netanyahu to reinforce the anti-leftist message that has been so effective for him in drumming up rightist support.
However, even partial annexation would come with some risks for Netanyahu. Polls have shown that most Israelis, including a majority of Likud voters, oppose the move. Applying Israeli law in the West Bank may also provoke Palestinian and international backlash that could threaten the stability many voters attribute to Netanyahu’s stewardship. For the prime minister, the annexation question poses a compelling dilemma at a highly sensitive time.
So where is Netanyahu headed? In February, he postponed a cabinet vote on a “sovereignty bill” that would apply Israeli law to the settlements, yet he did not block legislation that applied Israeli regulations to academic institutions in the West Bank. Next, a ministerial committee approved a bill on normalizing petition practices beyond the Green Line. These mixed signals suggest that Netanyahu has not made a decision and, true to form, is keeping his cards close to his chest.