A picture taken from the E1 corridor, a super-sensitive area of the occupied West Bank, shows Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim in the background on February 25, 2020. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

The negotiations were long and torturous but finally Knesset chairman Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached an accord, clearing the way for the first functioning Israeli government in over a year.

The opponents agreed to form a “national emergency government” to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic hardships sure to follow. Netanyahu will continue as prime minister for now. The deal includes a guarantee, to be backed by relevant legislation, that he will be replaced by Gantz after 18 months in office.

Gantz is now slated to assume the role of defense minister. His ally, Gabi Ashkenazi, will be appointed foreign minister. In theory this will provide Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party with crucial influence on Israeli security and foreign policy. The centrists also received the justice and communications portfolios, which are symbolic of Bibi’s corruption woes.

The deal was almost torpedoed by Netanyahu’s insistence that he obtain an unprecedented veto over the appointments of Israel’s Judicial Appointments Committee. This was very problematic for Gantz, who had campaigned on an anti-corruption ticket and ostentatiously declared that he would never sit in a government with an indicted criminal. However, the former general finally conceded the veto to Netanyahu.

That was not the only concession.

July annexation

The deal includes an agreement to promote the annexation of parts of the West Bank. During the 1967 War, Israel occupied the Palestinian-populated territory and has held it ever since. However, Israel has thus far avoided claiming direct sovereignty for demographic reasons and in order to avoid international criticism and sanctions.

In the Trump era, the playing field has changed.

In January, the United States government released a plan allowing for unilateral Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley and Israeli settlements.

Annexation has been thus far delayed by the inability of the Israeli premier to form a functioning government. The agreement between the Likud and the Israel Resilience party will change this.

The new government, according to the terms of the deal, “will be able to bring an agreement reached with the US applying sovereignty [over West Bank settlements] for the approval of the Cabinet and or the Knesset” anytime from July 1.

The Trump administration and the Israeli government earlier agreed to cooperate on establishing parameters of annexation. In February, an American-Israeli surveying team began work on drawing the borders between the settled areas to be annexed and the area slated for a tiny and non-contiguous Palestinian “state.”

The terms of the deal mandate that “the law will be passed as quickly as possible… and will not be disrupted or delayed by the chairmen of either the House or the Foreign Affairs and Defense committees” – the portfolios controlled by centrist Gantz.

This language does not obligate members of Gantz’s party to vote for the measure, and therefore it is not guaranteed to pass in the cabinet. However, the coalition agreement calls for a second path to approval by a straight vote in the Knesset. The measure is guaranteed passage in the chamber due to expected support from the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu opposition party.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd-R) and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (L) applaud after unveiling the sign for the new settlement of “Trump Heights. named after the US president, during an official ceremony in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on Sunday. Photo: AFP

Feet to the fire

There had been severe disagreement over the annexation during coalition talks. Gantz insisted the conflict be resolved through negotiations and not annexation. Ultimately, however, he conceded this point.

The eventual willingness of the Israel Resilience Party to agree is not surprising. Gantz, along with his former allies in the Blue and White alliance, previously expressed support for a more limited annexation.

Gantz has stipulated that annexation should occur only if facilitated by the recognition of the international community. In theory, this would render the move impossible. European Union representatives warned Gantz in recent days that an annexation bill would seriously damage relations.

The Trump administration is likely to stand alone in supporting annexation. This imposes constraints on Israel, namely when it comes to a time frame for realizing its plans.

The economic downturn in the United States and the favorable performance of rival Joe Biden in the polls, mean there is a chance a Democratic administration will be elected in November. It is highly likely that a Biden administration will fiercely oppose Israeli annexation of the West Bank and stick to the traditional two-state solution.

The Netanyahu government may have only a few months to complete the move.

The only roadblock now is Covid-19.

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