For months, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu government has been marching full speed ahead towards annexation of roughly 30% of the West Bank on the premise Donald Trump administration support provided a historic opportunity for the controversial move.
This logic, however, has been undercut with shifts in the prevailing winds in US politics.
The most recent polls show former US Vice-President Joe Biden holds a decisive advantage over President Donald Trump ahead of the elections in November. This would mean that the support of the Trump administration may become irrelevant a few short months after annexation is planned to take place.
Israeli officials have taken note of this possibility and are voicing concern. A source in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Asia Times that a Biden win would be a gamechanger.
“While we still want annexation to occur, many of us see how badly Trump is doing right now and wondering if pursuing annexation might not leave us completely isolated in the world,” the source said.
The Netanyahu government has reason to be concerned over a Biden victory. While the former vice-president and veteran senator has traditionally been supportive of Israel and a loyal ally of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an influential lobbying group, he has refused to support annexation.
Last month, Biden came out against the move in a private meeting, telling a group of American Jews: “I do not support annexation. The fact is, I will reverse Trump’s undercutting of peace.”
The presidential candidate has also used proxies to carry his message to the public sphere. Biden’s top foreign policy advisor, former undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns, warned that “annexation is the one issue which could most harm the US-Israel relationship.” He warned that the move would receive “almost complete denunciation by the American political leadership.”
Congressional Democrats have uniformly come out against annexation.
A recent letter, signed by Senators Chuck Schumer of New York, Ben Cardin of Maryland and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, stated that they are “compelled to express opposition to the proposed unilateral annexation of territory in the West Bank.”
Schumer’s opposition is particularly notable due to his position as Senate minority leader and his reputation as the most notable supporter of Israel in the upper house. A similar statement was signed by more than 120 House Democrats, including majority leader Steny Hoyer.
Senators such as Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, all considered leading candidates to become Biden’s vice-presidential nominee, have also come out against annexation.
This is indicative of a move to the left within the Democratic Party, both generally and in terms of its policy towards Israel.
Eliot Engel, a long-time supporter of Israel, last Wednesday lost his primary to progressive candidate Jamaal Bowman in a major upset against a veteran congressman. It has become clear that annexation will garner no support from neither a potential Biden administration nor Democratic representatives in Congress.
Netanyahu is fully aware of this dynamic and the dangers it poses to Israel. However, from his perspective, it increases the urgency of a timely annexation.
David Makovsky, the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Project on the Middle East Peace Process, told Asia Times that Netanyahu was fully aware that a Biden presidency will not support annexation, but he is looking at the longer term.
“In 1981 Israel applied its jurisdiction to the Golan, the US didn’t accept it. But 40 years later Trump did. Bibi’s view is that what matters is that Israel made it’s decision and has created facts on the ground,” he said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
Netanyahu is looking towards his legacy, rather than the immediate repercussions of annexation. As Makovsky explained, annexing while Trump is still in power allows Israel to “maximize the alignment of stars while minimizing the political fallout and focus on shaping his legacy.”
However, Netanyahu cannot shape annexation unilaterally. The current Israeli government is centered on a shaky coalition between the Likud and the Blue and White Party led by Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gaby Ashkenazi.
According to the coalition deal between Netanyahu and his former opponent Gantz, the government can start to move ahead with the annexation of roughly 30% of the West Bank on July 1. Gantz and his party agreed they would not block annexation in return for concessions on domestic issues.
It is no secret that the leadership of the Blue and White party are not enthusiastic supporters of annexation. Both Gantz and Ashkenazi have expressed reservations over the wisdom of annexation. Biden’s lead in the polls gives the Blue and White position new weight.
Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group’s Arab-Israel Project, told Asia Times that Biden’s strength in the polls leads Netanyahu to be more attentive to the demands of the Blue and White ministers “and the more limited forms of annexation they contemplate.”
The Blue and White party could yet attempt to bury annexation plans, or at least limit their scope.
According to Israeli Army Radio, an unnamed UN official divulged that in private conversations Ashkenazi “can’t fathom a single logical reason for Israel to take a unilateral step” on annexation.
Many in the Foreign Ministry are equally unhappy with annexation, particularly in light of the increased possibility that Trump could be a one-term president.
“If Biden wins and is beholden to the Bernie [Sanders] supporters, the US may not veto possible UN sanctions against us,” a senior source in Israel’s Foreign Ministry told Asia Times.
Another Israeli Foreign Ministry source told Asia Times, “from the minister on down, there is anxiety over this move. We have not been prepared to deal with the fallout, we do not really see a benefit in pursuing annexation.”
The Foreign Ministry will be the ones tasked with defending annexation before the rest of the world.
Trump’s special representative for the peace process, Jared Kushner, is reportedly concerned that large scale annexation could keep the Palestinians from the negotiation table and impede cooperation with the Gulf States.
As a result of these misgivings, it is reported that the Trump administration is now backing a smaller annexation map. An unnamed Trump official told Reuters: “Ultimately, as the team approaches this thought of annexation, the main thing going through our heads is, ‘Does this in fact help advance the cause of peace?’”
The Netanyahu government is too invested in annexation to abandon it completely. All indications now point towards a limited application of annexation, perhaps to a few settlements near Jerusalem before the next elections.
Under these conditions, opponents and skeptics of annexation may be able to exert pressure on Netanyahu to leave the door to a two-state solution slightly ajar.