Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the eve of his narrow electoral victory, promised to pursue annexation of the West Bank – justifiably alarming supporters of a two-state solution. The concern is that the prime minister, facing corruption charges, will happily annex parts of the occupied territory in order to obtain a law protecting him from prosecution.
The silence emanating from the Trump administration made it clear that there would be limited pushback, if any, to a move towards annexation. Now that it has become clear that the Likud will form the next coalition, many observers are fearful that this may come to pass. After all, Netanyahu will be able to put together a right-wing coalition without the moderate Blue and White party.
Various media outlets have speculated that the future government of Israel is likely to be the most right-wing one in its history. The results do not confirm this thesis, however, as the pro-annexation parties dramatically underperformed in the election. The extremist Zehut party, which advocates for the annexation of the entire West Bank, did not pass the voting threshold and will not be represented in the next Knesset. Even more shockingly, the New Right party failed to enter the Knesset. The only pro-annexation party which made it in was the racist United Right party with five seats.
This is an underwhelming performance for the messianic right. Instead of the 15 or so seats the pro-annexation contingent was expected to receive, they will obtain a mere third of that number in a 120-seat body.
Synagogue and state
Racist and extremist parties have been represented in the Knesset before without dramatic consequences for Israeli policy. The most notable instance was when Meir Kahane was elected in the 1980s and when the National Union received five seats in 2009.
The less messianic elements of the Israeli right-wing greatly outperformed expectations. The Likud, which at the end of the day is a pragmatic center-right political party, outperformed in the polls by five or six mandates and appears set to obtain 36 seats. This will allow the Likud more leeway than expected in pursuing its preferred security strategy and foreign policy agenda. This has never included annexation in the past.
Two more right-wing parties, which are considered moderate on territorial issues, at first seemed likely to remain outside of the Knesset. Instead, they ended up over-performing. Former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, whose voter base is heavily Russian, received five mandates.
Their platform is militarily hawkish but does not stress annexation. It calls for a “region-based peace settlement” rather than aggressive unilateral moves. Liberman is more likely to make demands which will benefit his Russian constituents in the arena of synagogue and state in return for granting Netanyahu immunity.
The relatively moderate Kulanu party, headed by current Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is similarly disinterested in annexation. The party focuses on lowering the cost of living in the overpriced country and tends to deemphasize security issues. His approach to territorial issues is pragmatic. He has also criticized the ruling party for being too extreme, opining that “the real Likud knows how to make peace, to give up territory,” while at the same time being conservative and responsible.
In line with the traditional Israeli position, the Kulanu platform calls for maintaining the settlement blocs but does not even hint that they should be annexed. Bringing Kahlon into the coalition would involve concessions regarding quality of life rather than annexation.
The biggest winners in this election, aside from the Likud, are the two major ultra-orthodox parties. Shas, which represents the Mizrachi (Jews originating from Arab countries) will receive eight seats, which is double the amount that some polls were predicting. Meanwhile, the Ashkenazi (Jews originating from Eastern European countries) ultra-orthodox party also did well by receiving seven seats.
As a result, Netanyahu will likely focus on meeting religious demands rather than territorial demands.
No annexation appetite
The classic formula of Israeli coalition governments for decades has been that the majority party determines security and diplomacy issues in exchange for granting virtual carte blanche in terms of religious policy to its allies.
The theory that Netanyahu will now pursue annexation is based on the assumption that this will be the central demand of his coalition partners. However, if we do the math, there are only five seats representing pro-annexation parties which could ally with the Likud. Meanwhile, there are 24 mandates which are uninterested in annexation.
It is important to remember that the pursuit of annexation by the Israeli government will come at a price. True, the Trump administration will not stand in the way of annexation. However, a move toward annexation would further alienate the American Jewish community and the Democratic Party.
In addition, annexation would likely strengthen the BDS movement, which calls for companies and countries to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, and EU members would be tempted to limit trade with Israel. This would be consequential, should it occur, as Europe is a more central trading partner for Israel than the United States. In terms of global consequences, the UN would respond to annexation of the West Bank by holding debates on sanctions.
Finally, a dramatic move in the West Bank would force the Arab states to curtail their blossoming security cooperation with Israel. There is no doubt that in his bid to survive, the narcissistic Netanyahu would be willing to risk all this and more. However, considering that this is unlikely to be the main demand of his prospective coalition partners, it is unlikely to occur.
The Western media has covered this election as evidence that Israel is fanatically right-wing. However, this is misleading. Israel is not messianic in its approach. It believes that the West Bank is necessary for its security, but most of its parties view annexation as pointless.
The new Israeli government will be similar to previous right-wing governments dominated by ultra-orthodox religious demands rather than the annexation nightmare some have feared. That is not a great outcome for peace or for Israel, but by Middle Eastern standards, this is good news.