Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a very disappointing day on Tuesday. Struggling in the polls a week before the rerun of April’s Israeli national
elections, the embattled prime minister was desperate for something to swing a chunk of voters in his direction, or at least in the direction of some of the right wing parties supporting him.
To that end, Netanyahu scheduled a press conference to announce some big development, and as the hour of his appearance neared, the word was that it was going to be that the Trump administration had agreed to Netanyahu’s plan to annex major pieces of the West Bank. Netanyahu appeared and quickly said that if he won the election, he would immediately annex the Jordan Valley, which constitutes around 30% of the West Bank (excluding Jerusalem) and about 60% of Area C, the part of the West Bank that was left under full Israeli control in the Oslo Accords (see adjacent map). He further implied that more annexation would follow, as a result of negotiations with the United States (not the Palestinians, of course) that would be held in the framework of Donald Trump’s fabled “Deal of the Century.”
The fact that anyone with any experience of Netanyahu at all would realize that this is nothing more than a campaign stunt, doesn’t mean that his statements should not be taken seriously. As Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer wrote today, “We must remember what Netanyahu promised just five months ago, on the eve of the previous election, which he failed to win. In one interview he spoke of annexing the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim. In another, he mentioned Gush Etzion as the place where he would extend sovereignty. And now he’s promising the same for the Jordan Valley…he refused to be pinned down by his right-wing partners when they tried to get him to fulfill those promises. This time is no different.”
Pfeffer is right, but all one needs to do is look over in Jerusalem, where a twenty-foot wall is being erected around what is now called the United States Embassy to Israel to see how political grandstanding can turn into reality on the ground. It took 23 years before the United States acted on the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, but it too was supposed to be just a piece of political grandstanding. Most of the members of Congress who voted for it thought it would never be implemented outside of a peace agreement, but these theatrical statements matter. Opening these doors shifts the discourse and the political consciousness, even if the immediate results don’t amount to much.
In making his announcement, Netanyahu gave the impression that there was some coordination with Washington. The question on everyone’s mind as he left the podium was what the Trump administration was going to do in response.
Just minutes after Netanyahu’s declaration, Israeli journalist Barak Ravid reported that the U.S. issued a very muted response. “There is no change in US policy at this time regarding the West Bank,” he was told. “We will release our Vision for Peace after the Israeli election and work to determine the best path forward to bring long sought security, opportunity and stability to the region.” The statement was sufficiently vague to keep open the possibility of the U.S. fully backing annexation. But Netanyahu was surely hoping for a much bigger gift from Trump to boost his sagging chances at a victory in next week’s election.
In the absence of such a booster, Netanyahu had to settle for rehashing old, wafer-thin allegations against Iran and this annexation promise. Netanyahu accused Iran on Monday of having operated a “secret nuclear site” near the city of Abedeh, based on documents the Israelis had stolen from Iran in 2018. As the Arms Control Association said in a statement sent to the press, “Regarding the accusations of the PM Netanyahu of Israel, which itself possesses a ‘secret’ nuclear weapons program and a small nuclear arsenal, we are not aware that the IAEA has any evidence that the Abadeh site is related to Iran’s nuclear program, let alone an ongoing effort to develop nuclear weapons.”
The fanfare with which Netanyahu made his latest exaggerated accusation against Iran had another purpose besides gathering more voters. It was also meant for Trump, in the hopes of dissuading him from his repeated attempts to secure a meeting with Iranian president Hasan Rouhani—a meeting Trump has repeatedly stated he welcomes and which Iran has repeatedly refused to consider unless the United States is willing to repeal or suspend its renewed sanctions.
But not only did the United States fail to whole-heartedly support Netanyahu’s annexation plan, after barely an hour had passed, Trump also announced that he had fired his national security adviser, John Bolton. That was a major setback for Netanyahu on several levels. First, Bolton was Netanyahu’s best chance at war with Iran, whether waged by the United States or by Israel. His dismissal certainly doesn’t take that possibility off the table, but Bolton was the strongest advocate in the administration for attacking Iran. Trump’s distaste for a military action, which would displease much of his base, will now have even more sway over policy. And both Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman must now be worried that the possibility of dialogue between the U.S. and Iran, while still not a strong possibility, is significantly more likely than it was a day ago.
Bolton was also the most passionate advocate in the cabinet for the most hardline Israeli policies. With Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt heading out the door to be replaced with a 30-year old neophyte, the number of influential voices on this score has been halved. To be sure, the remaining half—Jared Kushner and U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman—continue to hold enormous power over U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, but neither of them have the experience, particularly in the pro-U.S. Arab world and in the Washington bureaucracy, that Bolton does. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is much more inclined to simply go along with Trump than argue for policies of his own, will likely play a more prominent role going forward, but simply doesn’t have the same potential to influence Trump’s thinking that Bolton once did.
The timing of Bolton’s firing suggests the fiasco last weekend that led to Trump canceling an ill-considered summit at Camp David with the Taliban, just as the anniversary of 9/11 was approaching, was the final straw for Bolton. The national security adviser had seen his position severely eroded as he quarreled constantly with other cabinet members, most notably Pompeo, and Bolton had opposed not just the meeting, but the talks with the Taliban altogether. The entire affair, starting with Trump’s tweet about canceling a meeting no one had known about, drew a great deal of bad press toward Trump, even from right wing sources. The president was, no doubt, looking for someone other than himself to blame.
With Bolton gone and no specific support from Trump for his campaign promises, Netanyahu must look elsewhere for the electoral splash he needs. Polls in Israel have been remarkably consistent for months, reflecting that neither Netanyahu’s Likud nor the Blue-White coalition of Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid will have enough support to form a governing majority. For Netanyahu, that means that, just like in April, his former defense minister, Avigdor Liberman, will be able to deny Likud a majority unless someone other than Netanyahu assumes the prime minister’s office.
Netanyahu hopes that polls over the next few days start to shift his way, that his unsubstantiated allegations of voting fraud among the Arab citizens of Israel, and that his tried and true methods of fear-mongering and race-baiting work for him one more time. Meanwhile, he will likely spend the next few days seeking another way to find a few more right-wing Knesset seats and insulate himself against Liberman’s threats. These last few days of the 2019 Israeli election part II are likely to turn even uglier.