I am on the road again travelling west to visit our two sons living on the West Coast and then my nephew in California. We will drive back to Toronto via the U.S. My blogs will become intermittent, but I want to use the first part of my trip before I arrive at the West Coast to catch up on my thoughts about Israel.
Part I: Bibi’s Expansion of Sovereignty Promise – Background
On the evening of Saturday 6 April, just three days before the recent election in Israel, Bibi Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, promised on TV that he would extend Israeli sovereignty to settlements in Judea and Samaria (note, not the West Bank) if he were to be re-elected. On Israel’s Channel 12, he announced: “I am going to extend [Israeli] sovereignty and I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and the isolated settlements.”
It was telling that the announcement took place only two days after he had met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, the second meeting this year. Further, Putin presented Netanyahu with the remains of Zachary Baumel, who was killed in Lebanon in 1982, a public relations coup for Bibi. That meeting with Putin was held only ten days after Bibi had been in Washington to celebrate the benefits of the Trump presidency for Israel. In politics, timing is almost everything. This particular sequence was especially significant and very auspicious.
In one interpretation, the announcement following those two high level meetings was made to ensure the alliance with parties further right than Likud as well as the backing from Likud members who supported implementing such a policy. Further, Avigdor Liberman, Bibi’s former defense minister and head of Yisrael Beitenu, since his resignation from the government last November, has been a spur in Netanyahu’s side. At the time of the 6 April announcement, polls indicated that Liberman and his party might not meet the minimum threshold to take seats in the Knesset. Bibi’s visit with Putin had been timed and stage managed by Bibi to attract Russian immigrant votes away from Yisrael Beitenu; the members largely admire Putin and constitute Liberman’s base. Did the announcement on expanding sovereignty following the meeting harm a dangerous rival of Bibi’s?
The Likud-led bloc of right-wing and religious parties won 65 seats in the Knesset out of 120. Likud won just enough seats to ensure that President Rivlin would not call on Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid’s Kachol Lavan, Blue and White Party, to try to form a government. Of the right-wing parties, Avigdor Liberman passed the minimum threshold of 3.25% of the vote and held 5 seats, just enough to prevent Bibi from forming a government without his support and to force Bibi to call new elections. The ostensible reason was the failure of the government to follow through and pass the law requiring Hasidic youth to serve in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).
During the past three months since that announcement of extending sovereignty, much has happened on the Israeli front. First, there was the diplomatic fallout from that announcement in the international arena and the domestic fallout within Israel, including the very widespread misinterpretation of the announcement that equated the expansion of sovereignty with annexation. I will expand on the difference in a subsequent blog, but suffice it for now to explain that expanding sovereignty means extending the application of Israeli law to settlements in Judea and Samaria and not annexing those areas. Nevertheless, the Haaretz headline on 6 April read: “Netanyahu Says Will Begin Annexing West Bank if Re-elected Prime Minister.” In a Haaretz poll, 42% of Israelis backed annexation.
Second, Netanyahu failed to form a government and called new elections. Third, the quest for a long-term ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas made some progress, though it seems to have been a case of two steps forward but only one step back. Fourth, the political conflict between the U.S. and Iran escalated enormously, with Israel seemingly left on the sidelines and the Revolutionary Guards in Iran put on a Terror Watch List.
Fifth, though much derided, the stream of leaks concerning President Trump’s “Deal of the Century” became a torrent as it headed either towards a carefully constructed dam which began construction in Bahrain on 25-26 June that would hold back the headwaters of further conflict or come crashing down over a precipice even steeper than Niagara Falls. The key to peace shifted from the Israeli-Palestinian border to the Arab Countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Saudi Arabia would not only throw billions of dollars at the issue, but would cede land to Jordan of an equivalent area to Naharaim and Tsofar, territory that Israel leased from Jordan on a very long-term basis as part of the Jordan-Israeli peace deal. Jordan would cede those territories to Israel as a very different version of land for peace deal.
Even though Palestinians already constituted a majority in Jordan, the country would also receive a huge infusion of economic aid and, in turn, would also grant citizenship to the remaining Palestinians, many who fled the wars in Iraq and Syria and who did not have citizenship. Egypt would open industrial zones in the Sinai to provide economic relief for Palestinians in Gaza and would also receive billions of dollars in aid, a tentative plan that was to be confirmed in a meeting between President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Washington on Israel’s election day.
Lebanon, in spite of the dominance of Hezbollah in the country, would also receive an infusion of aid in proportion to the number of Palestinians granted citizenship, while the rest would be offered resettlement places in the West in return for renouncing a “right of return.” Political issues would then take a back seat to transactional diplomacy that, while not settling the border issue and the status of Jerusalem in the Palestinian negotiations, would de facto resolve the Palestinian refugee issue.
What about the issue of the border between Palestine and Israel in a two-state solution and an exchange of land for peace? Bibi had announced prior to the election that not one settler would be uprooted from Judea and Samaria. 430,000 Jews live in the West Bank. Another 200 thousand Jews live in the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem annexed by Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967. The initiative on expanding sovereignty was also taken to shatter the main plank of the pro-annexation New Right Party.After all, expanding sovereignty in settlements was not the same as annexing Area C as Bennet had advocated as far back as 2012.
In the next blog I will analyze the difference between extending sovereignty and annexation on which subject I provided a brief headline above. President Trump had already endorsed annexation of the Golan Heights. 30 of 90 synagogues found and excavated by archeologists in Eretz Israel were located on the Golan. Further, Israel has occupied the Golan much longer by now than Syria had. The U.S. also advanced the sovereignty movement in Israel by moving its embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, though not explicitly all of Jerusalem. This advanced the right-wing agenda in Israel. Further, the Trump administration had clearly indicated that the settlements were no longer to be considered illegal and went even further in declaring them to be legitimate and not an obstacle to peace.
Before I clarify the difference between annexation and the extension of sovereignty, it will be very helpful if the views on expanding sovereignty versus annexation by West Bank settlement leaders are also provided as a critical part of the background. The issue is not about the ultimate goal of annexation by the West Banks settlers, but the approach to the expansion of sovereignty. In March in the month before the Israeli April election, Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Council, reiterated the governing doctrine of the West Bank settlers that surrendering the heart of Eretz Israel to a two-state solution would amount to the abandonment of Zionism. However, current tactics focused on sovereignty expansion, even though Yohai Damari, head of the South Hevron Hills Council, insisted that now was the time for a final resolution.
Prior to the election, West Bank settlement leaders launched a drive to expand Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank. They had significant support in the government. Ayelet Shaked, the Minister of Justice, lauded the progress towards sovereignty. The concerted campaign, however, depended on in-depth strong support from the settlers themselves. Yigal Lahav, head of the Karnei Shomron Council, reaffirmed his commitment, and that of the settlers that he led, to the goal of the application of sovereignty. Yisrael Ganz, head of the Binyamin Council, and Shay Allon, head of the Beit El Council, announced prior to the election, “The vision for activity in the coming years – sovereignty.”
Shlomo Ne’eman, head of the Gush Etzion Council, reaffirmed that commitment: “No more question marks. It’s time for sovereignty.” Eliyahu Liebman, head of the Kiryat Arba-Hebron Council, pronounced: “sovereignty is vital for the proper administration of any authority.” Up until five years ago, the progress towards increased sovereignty had been meager. But in 2019, the progress towards this goal over the past five years had become significant.
There had been a broad spectrum of government and parliamentary initiatives on behalf of the application of sovereignty in Judea and Samaria. In the Knesset prior to the elections, 18 legislative proposals had been introduced to apply Israeli law in West Bank settlements. The Likud Central Committee in 2018 had endorsed an expanded effort on increasing sovereignty for West Bank settlements, an initiative which Bibi initially resisted. The reality on the ground, however, was that the National Camp had firmly and decisively united over a vision of sovereignty. A three-day Leumiada was held in March in Eilat on the issue of sovereignty at which Minister Haim Katz announced, “I will do everything I can for the advancement of sovereignty. Minister Zeev Elkin pronounced that sovereignty would be expanded by the salami method.
The West Bank settlement movement had, by and large, abandoned an all or nothing approach to enhancing Israel’s position in the West Bank and instead adopted pushing for sovereignty by the salami method. In return, the peace camp viewed these efforts as death to the peace process by a thousand slices. Further, the salami method was viewed as critical to the effort of pushing settlement interests from the right fringes to the centre of the political spectrum.
While annexation would mean an assertion of full sovereignty over the West Bank, the salami method would deal with irritants to the settler movement, whether dealing with the tourist ministry, environmental issues and courts of justice. Just before getting to the end of the salami, a very late slice would entail extending sovereignty over all state lands in Judea and Samaria while recognizing private ownership of land by Palestinians which would have enhanced legal security.
To be continued: Sovereign Expansion versus Annexation
With the help of Alex Zisman