A general view of houses in the settlement of Ofra
Were Israel involved in serious negotiations to reach an end-of-conflict agreement with the Palestinians, it would insist on maintaining security control of the Jordan Valley and adjacent mountain ridge, and it would demand that the large settlement blocs located close to the Green Line (the 1949 Armistice lines) be included within Israel’s borders. There is a broad consensus within Israel on both issues. These positions were part of Yitzhak Rabin’s vision for a final settlement as expressed in his last speech to the Knesset in October 1995. However, because of his commitment to maintaining a strong Jewish majority, Rabin pointedly did not include settlements quite far from the Green Line or those located near large Arab populations. Many Israelis continue to share this view.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now strongly advocating unilateral annexation of the Jordan Valley and all the Jewish settlements. This is problematic for two reasons: there is a very large difference between reaching an agreed settlement in negotiation and taking unilateral steps to secure desired results, and by specifying “all” Jewish settlements Netanyahu is taking a highly controversial position. Netanyahu’s current stance is surprising, given that he had consistently resisted prior attempts by right wing Members of Knesset to advance annexation. Why now? Part of the reason seems to be to take advantage of support by the Trump administration in what may be its waning months. But there may be more. Various well-respected commentators and political analysts have speculated that Netanyahu’s primary motivation in supporting annexation is to take a bold step that would cement his “legacy” as one of Israel’s most important leaders.
Those supporting Netanyahu’s proposal tend to minimize the downside risks. Many others, conversely, anticipate that unilateral annexation, whether full or partial, would trigger a cascade of negative repercussions that would greatly outweigh any possible benefits. The possible negatives include increased Palestinian violence within or emanating from the West Bank and Gaza, leading to deaths of Israeli military personnel and civilians; Jordan’s cancellation of its peace treaty with Israel; a freeze in relations with other Arab countries; greater hostility to Israel among leaders and rank and file members of the Democratic Party in the U.S.; sanctions by some European countries; and reduced support for Israel in future confrontations with Iran. In the longer run, annexation might weaken Israel’s chances of remaining a state with a majority Jewish population. Some of these developments, particularly those related to security, would require increased expenditures at a time when Israel’s financial situation is already greatly stressed due to the sharp economic decline precipitated by the coronavirus. Opposition to unilateral annexation has come from Israelis with impeccable security experience and expertise, including Amos Gilad, Amos Yadlin, Ami Ayalon, Tamir Pardo, Gadi Shamni and Giora Eiland.
If these dire predictions largely prove to be accurate, then in retrospect the decision to annex, led with fullest responsibility by Netanyahu, will be harshly judged due to its damage to an array of vital Israeli national interests. It will be seen, to use a term taken from the world of tennis, as an “unforced error,” which is defined by Merriam-Webster as one “that is entirely a result of the player’s own blunder and not because of the opponent’s skill or effort.”
Within Israel, Netanyahu has been a highly divisive figure, with many Israelis highly critical of his policies and personal behavior, most recently his sustained attacks on Israel’s legal institutions and media. Many others are ardent supporters of his leadership and see him as unfairly accused of wrongdoing. Some of Netanyahu’s critics do recognize that his record includes important achievements and not just failures, and stem from his specific personal strengths. For example, they acknowledge that he has presided over a decade of excellent economic results for Israel, until the onset of the coronavirus, including an above average growth rate, low inflation, and remarkably low unemployment. In the diplomatic arena, Netanyahu has enhanced Israel’s standing in an array of countries and persuaded the U.S. government to move its embassy to Jerusalem and to recognize Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights. Others appreciate the decision to build the border fence with Egypt that stopped the influx of illegal African immigrants before their number became unmanageable. His broadly acknowledged personal strengths include high intelligence, outstanding rhetorical capabilities, astute political skills, and an inclination to be much more cautious in his actions than in his words.
Particularly because of this last tendency, there is hope that, despite his repeated statements in favor of proceeding with unilateral annexation, he will find a way either to decide against it or to postpone it indefinitely. The reasons to desist are quite compelling.
One of Charles Dickens most popular works of fiction is “A Christmas Carol,” which can be read as a story of repentance (tshuvah.) The protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, is an elderly, tight-fisted, unsympathetic man, devoted to business, who is estranged from family and friends. One Christmas Eve he has a serious of nightmarish visions, in which the ghost of his late partner appears and urges Scrooge to change his ways and save himself while there is still time. Scrooge is then visited by ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. The scenes from his past and the present cause him anguish, sadness, and regret. Then, the grim scenes of his future, assuming that he continues his present behavior, terrify him sufficiently to prompt him to repent and mend his ways.
One can only hope that Benjamin Netanyahu will recognize, either due to a Scrooge-like nightmare or merely as the result of a sober assessment of the facts at hand, that rather than securing for himself a positive legacy, annexation might emphatically achieve the opposite, producing in its wake such severely negative consequences for Israel that his decision will be regarded as the greatest failure of his long tenure as prime minister, dwarfing his prior positive achievements.
If Netanyahu decides to change gears and postpone annexation, it will allow the government to focus fully on what ought be its main priorities: dealing with Israel’s deep and widespread economic crisis and ensuring that our health system is ready for a second wave of the coronavirus, which could be worse than the first wave. Yes, some on the right are going to be bitterly disappointed, yet again, by postponement. However, by swerving back towards the center, Netanyahu would be doing the right thing.