Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never had it so good. His one-time foes are lining up behind him like never before as he inches closer to forming a national emergency government that would extend his premiership for another 18 months. Two weeks ago, and to avoid an unpredictable fourth election, the Likud leader and the head of the Blue and White coalition, Benny Gantz, agreed to a partnership; ostensibly to confront the outbreak of the coronavirus in the country.
Under that agreement, Netanyahu would remain as prime minister for the next year and a half before handing over that position to his rival and now partner, Gantz. But most importantly, the deal allows Netanyahu to put to a vote, to the cabinet and or to the Knesset, the controversial annexation of parts of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley, under Donald Trump’s peace plan. That move is expected to take place in July.
Gantz, whose coalition was formed solely to dethrone Netanyahu, had lost two key partners as he courted Likud after failing to form a government led by him. Moshe Ya’alon of Telem centre right party and Yair Lapid of the centrist party Yesh Atid, both walked out and joined the opposition, which includes members of the Arab Joint List.
In return for his support, Blue and White now has 17 members left, down from 33, Gantz would become Defence Minister, while his coalition will also take the Justice and Foreign Affairs portfolios. The partnership would cost Netanyahu the backing of some extremist parties that were in his last government. On paper, the new cabinet would move away from the Far Right, but the reality could be something different.
Gantz, and the new Foreign Affairs Minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, are no doves. Gantz had resisted joining hands with the Joint Arab List although he stopped short of demonising the Arab minority. His Blue and White coalition had failed to attract what little that remains of the Israeli left.
But last Friday Gantz was able to convince the leader of the Labour Party, Amir Peretz, to formally endorse Netanyahu for prime minister, together with his fellow party members. Like Gantz, Peretz, whose party did poorly in last March’s elections, broke a key campaign promise not to support Netanyahu.
Under the Blue and White-Labour deal, lawmakers from Peretz’s left-wing party would have to vote with the government on issues considered controversial, including annexation of parts of the West Bank. His party also agreed to avoid any moves to dissolve the coalition, the government or the parliament.
No one in Israel would have imagined Netanyahu, who only a few weeks ago looked vulnerable as he too had failed to form a Likud-led government, would emerge this strong with such a backing in the Knesset. So assured of himself was he that on Sunday Netanyahu told a crowd of US evangelicals, through a special broadcast, that he was confident that Trump would honor his vow to recognise “Israeli sovereignty over the Jewish communities there [in the West Bank] and in the Jordan Valley.”
His confidence was boosted by a statement made last week by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who said that it was up to Israel whether to annex parts of the West Bank, adding that Washington would offer its views privately to Israel’s new government. Pompeo left the door open for Netanyahu to go ahead, within the coming few weeks, and with the support of his coalition partners, with unilateral annexation.
Under the Netanyahu-Gantz deal the annexation can go through provided that it did not threaten existing peace treaties between Israel and its Arab neighbors. That puts the onus on Jordan and Egypt while giving Gantz room to step aside and let the annexation go ahead.
Trump, who is under pressure at home for his administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, will not hesitate to bless the Israeli move in order to placate the core of his voter base; the evangelicals. And Netanyahu knows that and that is why he is sure of Trump’s backing. It is a symbiotic relationship if ever there was one.
The United Kingdom, Germany and France, and some EU countries, have stated their opposition to Israel’s plans. Head of EU foreign policy Josep Borrell stated last week that “the European Union does not recognise Israeli sovereignty over the occupied West Bank and views any annexation as a serious violation of international law.” Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (PA) also made their rejection clear.
But the world is focused on battling the spread of the coronavirus and would give little attention to Netanyahu’s planned move. He soon will lead what tantamount to a war cabinet to fulfill what he sees as his lasting legacy. Ironically, the only serious warning to his annexation plans is coming from ex-military and security officials. But Netanyahu is blind and deaf to such warnings and he is bent on putting Israel and the Palestinians on a critical collision course.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman