US President Donald Trump escorts Benjamin Netanyahu into the White House during a visit by the Israeli Prime Minister to Washington in February 2017. Photo: Reuters
US President Donald Trump escorts Benjamin Netanyahu into the White House during a visit by the Israeli prime minister to Washington in February 2017. Photo: Reuters

A pre-election appeal by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to fall flat on Tuesday night, as domestic rivals expressed scant enthusiasm for his latest annexation pledge, which settlers said did not go far enough.

The rallying cry to “redraw” Israel’s borders was quickly overshadowed by news from Washington that US National Security Advisor John Bolton had been fired and Trump was ready to meet his Iranian counterpart “without preconditions” on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly later this month.

The Tuesday address, billed as a “dramatic announcement” by Netanyahu, came after weeks of leaks insinuating that an official annexation of the settlement blocs would be fully backed by the Trump administration, leading some to conclude that a far-reaching geopolitical move was in the offing.

In a serious tone, Israel’s longest-serving premier vowed to apply Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea if he is re-elected in elections slated for September 17.

He notably stopped short of promising full annexation, and settled instead for the vague legal formulation of sovereignty, reiterating a previous electoral promise to instill Israeli law in the major settlement blocs. 

The speech made clear the plan had not yet received backing from the White House.

Waiting on Trump

Netanyahu admitted he would have to await Trump’s long-awaited peace plan before moving to “instill sovereignty in the settlements and in other territories of vital importance while maintaining maximum coordination with the United States.” 

While the State Department has often been in lockstep with Netanyahu’s government, going so far as to remove the term “occupied” from all references to the Palestinian territories from its website earlier this year, the administration appeared to undercut Netanyahu’s political posturing on Tuesday.

The White House quickly responded that there was “no change in United States policy at this time.”

More critically, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Tuesday that President Trump would be willing to meet with the president of Israel’s arch-rival Iran “with no preconditions” – a gambit opposed by the newly-ousted Bolton.

The messaging from Washington appeared to dim hopes that Trump would provide Netanyahu with a diplomatic pre-election boost comparable to the movement of the US embassy to Jerusalem or the recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.

In Israel, the political opposition called out Netanyahu for what they deemed a cheap gambit for right-wing votes in the guise of a policy speech.

Netanyahu had taken the opportunity to attack opposition leader Benny Gantz for supposedly wishing to evacuate thousands of Israeli settlers, and ended the broadcast by asking Israeli voters “to give me the mandate to do this … give me the opportunity to determine the borders of Israel.”

Yair Lapid, the second leader in the Blue and White party, pointed out that in Netanyahu’s many years as prime minister, “no one had stopped him from applying sovereignty to the Jordan Valley.” 

What was most surprising, however, was the skepticism with which the move has been greeted by its intended audience. Netanyahu’s target audience was the Israeli right, but many of them appeared distinctly unimpressed.

Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Regional Council in the West Bank, noted that before the previous elections Netanyahu discussed instituting Israeli sovereignty over all Jewish settlements. 

“Now we are talking about just 10% of the territory,” he said. Hoping for annexation fully backed by the Trump administration, settler advocates had received neither.

“This could be interpreted in a very harmful manner by both President Donald Trump of the United States and the European Union,” Dagan warned, suggesting that Netanyahu had mistakenly signaled that Israel would be willing to accept less than full annexation. 

The head of the pro-settlement Yamina party, Ayelet Shaked, said that unless Netanyahu brings the plan before the cabinet immediately, “everyone in Israel will know this is nothing but a cheap political spin.”

Former defense minister and Yisrael Beitenu party leader Avigdor Liberman simply tweeted “dramatic announcement” accompanied by two laughing emojis. 

It was Liberman’s refusal to join a narrow right-wing coalition with Netanyahu that forced the country into the upcoming round of elections.

Coalition in question

Skepticism from right-wingers is well warranted. In every meaningful sense, Israel already applies sovereignty in the areas controlled by its military.

The military has based its eastwards security orientation on the Jordan Valley since 1967 and every Israeli prime minister has demanded that it be maintained in negotiations.

The latest Netanyahu plan would not expand Israeli control over Palestinians beyond where the military stands currently. Indeed, the premier noted that the plan “does not annex a single Palestinian, not even one.”

Annexation would imply a change of legal status, but Israeli sovereignty is already a reality.

The UN Secretary General’s office, for its part, said the stated proposal would have “no international legal effect.”

Netanyahu has so often employed the tool of “dramatic announcements” that many local TV stations have stopped granting them full air time. Typically, editors cut away from these conferences and return to their scheduled programming.  

On Tuesday the Israeli public expected a far greater pre-election gambit from the wily Netanyahu, but was underwhelmed.

Only three hours after the televised speech, Netanyahu was forced to evacuate his own campaign event in Ashdod as Hamas missiles were launched in his general direction. 

With only a week remaining before elections, polls show it is unlikely Netanyahu’s Likud will be able to form a narrow right-wing coalition capable of providing immunity for the embattled premier against impending corruption charges.

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