New York – On July 1, Israel intends to begin the annexation of the Jordan Valley and the Jewish towns and cities of the West Bank. The problem is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doing this while distancing himself from other parts of the Mideast plan that the Trump administration put together. Without the whole package, it will likely fail badly.
The annexation was meant to be an early down-payment to Israel in the broader context of the American vision for peace in the Middle East. That plan has many parts, but at its heart is the creation of a Palestinian state, with limited sovereignty, in roughly 70 percent percent of the West Bank and, eventually, all of Gaza.
Netanyahu was well aware of this when he enthusiastically embraced the plan back in January. He had been touting a "state-minus” solution for years exactly like the proposed state in the Trump plan. Ramallah can raise a flag, but not an army. It can have a capital in the outskirts of Jerusalem, but not downtown. Palestinian police can keep the peace on their own streets as long as they protect the streets of Israel. Palestinian civilians living abroad would be welcome to enter, but not hostile armies.
These limitations would amount to a Palestinian declaration of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state, and a quit-claim on the territory beyond the new state’s borders. For Israel, a limited Palestinian state is a feature, not a bug.
The elderly Palestinian leadership in Ramallah and the Hamas regime in Gaza bitterly oppose the deal. But while it is not even-handed (reflecting the existing imbalance of power), it is also not nothing. There has never been a Palestinian state of any size or shape. A younger generation might feel that a Palestinian country aligned with Israel and the United States, and backed by billions in start-up money, would be preferable to another 50 years of Israeli occupation and Palestinian stonewalling.
Like the Palestinian leaders, Israeli Jews on the far right hate the deal. They oppose a Palestinian state as a matter of ideology and principle. They fear that the American plan might actually work. This hard core is not politically numerous, but it is influential among Likud voters that Netanyahu relies on. They aim to convince the public that the deal is poisonous, and that Donald Trump is an enemy in disguise.
Netanyahu has stood up for Trump, but he is clearly distancing himself from the plan. Last week he told a right-wing newspaper that if the Palestinians fulfill the conditions of the Trump plan, "then they will have an entity that President Trump defines as a state.”
That dismissive language was a first salvo. A few days later, Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz, was more explicit. "We didn’t announce that we’re adopting the Trump plan,” he said, "just parts of it.” Those parts include annexing the settlements and the Jordan Valley. As for the rest, it’s no longer clear what Israel is planning.
This approach amounts to a gratuitous land grab (Israeli control of the Valley and the settlements is already a fact of life). And it empties the plan of its promise.
Benny Gantz, the coalition’s number two and Netanyahu’s presumptive successor, understands this. The center-left faction he leads supports the American plan in its entirety. Gantz is already under fire from his center-left voters for breaking his campaign vow not to serve in a Netanyahu-led government. If he acquiesces to Bibi’s annexation game, it could very well destroy his remaining credibility and his political ambitions.
If, on the other hand, Gantz opposes Netanyahu, it would likely bring down the government. To stay in power, the prime minister would then need the same right-wing hardliners, currently in the opposition, whose price would be rejection of the American plan.
The Middle East is not presently at the top of the Trump administration’s to-do list. Restoring racial calm, dealing with COVID-19 and its economic consequences and waging cold war against China all have more urgent claims on the U.S. president’s attention.
But the Trump administration is not exactly overflowing with foreign policy successes. The plan is worth defending. Trump (or, more probably, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo) needs to tell Netanyahu in clear terms that he can’t chip away at the American plan for his own political convenience. The U.S. should assure Gantz that the administration will back him up if he opposes the premature annexation.
The Trump plan, perhaps improbably given its provenance, reflects the realities of today’s West Bank demography and the balance of power between Israel and its neighbors. The two-state solution of 2020 cannot be the same as the one envisioned 50 years ago. Even so, its success is a long shot. A necessary condition is the belief of young Palestinians in the good faith of Israel and the United States. An unnecessary and provocative annexation right now is a mistake.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.