Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planned to take the first steps towards annexing Jewish settlement areas in the West Bank in July. However, the agenda has recently become almost a sideshow, primarily due to the COVID-19 crisis which continues to pose a severe challenge for Israel.
Israel’s Struggle With COVID-19
The simple answer as to why the process of the planned annexation has yet to start is COVID-19. Israel is not doing well in the pandemic, and infection rates are still high. Accordingly, with the economy and health of the people struggling, annexing land is not a priority for a majority of Israelis.
Netanyahu is taking the latter into account. He seems to have learned from his mistakes at the beginning of the crisis. At that time, Netanyahu came under scrutiny for focusing primarily on the annexation while the virus had already been raging in large parts of the country. That course has now been reversed.
Israeli Support and Opposition for Annexation
However, the fact that the annexation has so far not occurred is not solely related to COVID-19 and its impact. Majorities for an annexation scenario lack in Israeli society. In fact, a substantial number of representatives of settlers in the West Bank also oppose the annexation based on President Donald Trump’s peace plan. There reservations are not due to second thoughts regarding Palestinians, but because the current plan includes a Palestinian state – an affront for many Jewish residents in the region.
Moreover, Netanyahu also lacks full backing for the annexation plans in his government coalition. His partner, Blue and White, only wants to participate under certain conditions. Washington is another reason for the lack of progress. Just as Blue and White, one insists on an annexation that does not make a future two-state solution with the Palestinians inconceivable. Netanyahu and many in Likud see it differently. As a result, Israel has not yet been given the green light for annexation from the United States.
Annexation is No Longer a Political Priority
As a result, the topic of annexation in Israel has completely disappeared from the political agenda. And as long as the corona crisis persists, the annexation remains a politically high-risk for Netanyahu.
In the worst case, an annexation could become a boomerang for Netanyahu, since it could make the current handling of the coronavirus pandemic more difficult. The result would be a potential double defeat for Netanyahu and his party, although his reputation has already been severely damaged by many mistakes in the fight against the virus to date.
The Palestinian Perspective
Meanwhile, the Palestinians are confident that the annexation has only been postponed and could come at any time, warns the Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. He sees Israel’s tactic as “weighing the international community in safety,” he says. He considers the aforementioned different ideas between the US and Israel “tactical” and “nonsense”, as both sides were waiting for the right moment to strike. The annexation was therefore only “a matter of time,” Erekat says.
The answer, therefore, needs to come from the international community in his view, which should be increasing diplomatic pressure on Israel. States such as Germany were right for rejecting the plans but must coerce Israel to end their plans at the same time, Erekat says. Only political and economic coercion can stop Israel’s plans, he concludes.
The Future of West Bank and Jordan Valley Annexation
The annexation is by no means off the table for good but indeed postponed for the time being. Much will depend on how Israel — as well as the US — will cope with the pandemic moving forward. However, should Trump lose the election in November as expected and Joe Biden becomes president, all bets will be off. At the very least, Biden will demand renegotiation on the annexation plans, since he rejects the annexation plans in their current form.
Hence, if Netanyahu seeks to move forward with annexation, he could do so before the election – but with a significant risk of not only doing it unilaterally but by losing all remaining support in Israel.