Many of us awoke to the same announcement this morning: Prime Minister Netanyahu has announced that in his next term—if he is reelected—he will extend Israeli sovereignty to all the settlements in the West Bank. This would be a major shift in policy. Most right wing politicians have really only discussed extending sovereignty to the settlement blocs, i.e., the areas of the West Bank that Israel would inevitably insist on keeping in any future peace agreement.
What Netanyahu has just announced goes well beyond this. Many Jewish settlements, since the dawn of the Gush Emunim movement in the late 70s and early 80s, have been built in areas that are heavily Palestinian, demographically. Extending sovereignty to such settlements would make it essentially impossible to create a contiguous area for any future Palestinian government, even just an autonomous entity. It means, essentially, that checkpoints and Israeli military control over Palestinian citizens would almost certainly be a permanent feature of their lives.
To make sure this message is absolutely clear, Netanyahu communicated to President Trump, ahead of even hearing the new U.S. suggested plan, that he will not evacuate a single settlement or settler from the West Bank, no matter where or why.
Some might look at these promises and say that they aren’t new. In essence, the representatives of the far-right parties have been saying this for years. Certainly Bennet, Feiglin, Peretz, etc., would agree with this approach. The only thing new is that Likud is now adopting it.
But why is Likud adopting it? At first, one would at least hope that it is part of a comprehensive, thought out plan for Israel’s future. For example, the Two States One Homeland movement, devised by Israelis and Palestinians together, have an approach that would allow for settlers to stay in their settlements and Palestinians to still have independence. Whether one loves this idea or hates it, the movement has a thought out platform. But Netanyahu’s announcement does not come after a large thought-out reconsideration of the country’s approach to the Palestinian question. It does not seem to be part of anything at all other than a stark shift to the right and an adoption of the far-right’s principles.
So why is Netanyahu doing this now? We all know the answer, which is as clear as it is troubling: it is the week of elections and Likud may very well lose. At one point, his hope was that he could scare voters as he has done in the past by claiming that without him, Israel will be weak and vulnerable. But, of course, it strains all credulity to claim that a party run by three former heads of the army, Gantz, Yaalon, and Ashkenazi, one of whom was Bibi’s own defense minister (Yaalon), is weak and vulnerable. And thus, there is little reason to fear a Blue and White government.
In theory, he could have run on Israel’s great economy and the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” concept, but the problem is that government corruption has become so bad that money—literally billions of shekels—is disappearing down the gullets of party politics, and the price we pay for this is the skyrocketing cost of living. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party has been itching to root out all this and reinvest the money in needed economic reforms, and now he is the number 2 in the Blue and White party, which has adopted Yesh Atid’s platform in this regard. Thus, economic considerations push for Blue and White as well.
Add to this that the attorney general has recommended going forward with hearings against Netanyahu on three counts of corruption—matters that could end in a conviction and yet another Prime Minister going to jail—and one can see that Netanyahu’s Likud party is in some trouble.
So what is left for Netanyahu to do to ensure that he wins? The key strategic move seems to be the following: Get bigger than Blue and White at any cost. What that means is that instead of competing with Blue and White directly, he has begun to compete with the smaller right-wing parties, especially the New Right. If he can grab a few of their votes, Likud will be the biggest party.
I am not the only one to notice that this is what he is doing. No less seasoned a politician than Naphtali Bennet, the head of the New Right, has said this explicitly. The way Bibi has decided to compete with them is by adopting their own positions as Likud’s, and even doing so in a very extreme way. “Sovereignty over Maaleh Adumim you say? I’ll give you sovereignty over every Jewish outpost. Just vote for Likud and not the other guys on my right.”
Why is this strategy important to notice? Because it means that our government is now making radical policy decisions to stay in power, and that if Likud wins, it means that the country’s fate is more or less sealed. We are heading for annexation, period. And not because this is the reasoned conclusion of the current administration, but because this is the only way Prime Minister Netanyahu can realize what has become his most important cause: permanent Prime Ministership for him, plus no jail time. I can understand why this would be important enough for Bibi, such that he is willing to gamble all our futures on it, but should this really be the priority for the rest of us voting?