When it comes to audacious political chutzpah, few can match Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister, desperate for re-election this week and anything but assured in the polls, frantically tossed a grenade into the campaign at the last minute. If he keeps his job, he said he would annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank. It would effectively mean the end of the prospect of any meaningful Palestinian state.
That would be the least of Netanyahu’s worries. He needs to keep his nationalist coalition partners onside. They are opposed to a Palestinian state. They would like to see more land under Israeli control for the country’s long-term security. Netanyahu, eager to surpass David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is now only too happy to go along with this.
But annexation would provoke Palestine fury – and more despair – as well as international condemnation. The settlements are illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this. They have proved the greatest barrier to any semblance of a peace settlement which today has become a distant mirage. But Israel has never been too bothered by UN resolutions condemning it or international criticism.
Netanyahu may have become emboldened by President Trump’s decision last month to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights captured by Israel in 1967. Israel effectively annexed it 1981, a move condemned by the UN Security Council and subsequently ignored by the occupants.
The Palestinians envisaged their independent state as a combination of East Jerusalem (annexed by Israel in 1980), Gaza and the West Bank. But since the takeover of the West Bank by Israel during the 1967 war, 400,000 Jewish settlers have moved in to join the 2.8 million Palestinians and taken over land – the ancient Judea and Samaria – to sink roots anew. Annexation would leave the Palestinians at best with an impossible jigsaw of non-contiguous territories.
Netanyahu is unlikely to get any rebuke from his greatest international supporter, Donald Trump. Their political friendship got off to a flying start when Trump announced he would recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in defiance of international practice. Apart from the Golan announcement and getting tough with Israel’s enemy, Iran, Trump has battered the Palestinians with aid cuts and public scoldings, as the New York Times put it.
The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, was not surprised by the Netanyahu announcement. ‘Israel will continue to brazenly violate international law as long as the international community will continue to reward Israel with impunity, particularly with the Trump administration’s support and endorsement’, he said.
Who knows where all this would leave Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is supposed to be working on a MidEast peace plan or ‘the deal of the century’ as the president once put it as if it were a marketing concept. During the past 18 months, reporters have been told the unveiling is imminent. But the White House hopelessly underestimated its incubation period as well failing to recognise it was dealing with the ultimate Gordian knot.
At least, Israel can take some satisfaction that its election will be a rare example of Mideast democracy in action even if it means some grasping win-at-all-costs tactics.
FOOTNOTE. Netanyahu may take some satisfaction himself that the intention of his Attorney-General to lay corruption charges against him has yet to proceed. They accuse him of accepting up to $370,000 worth of luxury gifts from wealthy businessmen, including James Packer, and dispensing favours in return. Like Trump with his own troubles, Netanyahu declared it was all a ‘political witch hunt’ and brushed off the charges as baseless.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.