The swearing-in of a new Israeli government ended the country’s long coalition stalemate. But it also raises the possibility that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will move now to keep one of his campaign promises: annexation. The coalition agreement Netanyahu signed with former rival Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz allows the prime minister to move toward extension of Israeli law into some or all of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Israelis want their government to deal with the coronavirus pandemic rather than to focus on settlements. But there is a strong consensus behind the idea that there is no viable Palestinian peace partner and little support for withdrawal from settlements. Indeed, Gantz ran hard to the right on security issues in the recent elections and backs annexing the Jordan Valley. That’s why there is a clear majority in the Knesset for annexation.
The real opposition to annexation isn’t in Israel; it’s in America, where many Jews are registering dismay about the way the Trump administration — whose Middle East peace plan envisioned Israel keeping 30 percent of the West Bank alongside a Palestinian state — has indicated that the decision on annexation will be up to Israel, not the United States.
Critics claim annexation will isolate Israel diplomatically and foreclose hope for a two-state solution, ultimately dooming Israel to becoming a binational state where Arabs will not have full rights. They also predict that it will create a permanent rupture between Israel and American Jews.
Annexation will give Democrats, whose left-wing base is already indifferent or hostile to Israel, another reason to pull the party further away from support for the alliance. The same is probably true for liberal Jews who have grown increasingly uncomfortable with Israeli governments and others who don’t think much of the generally dovish views held by Americans about the conflict with the Palestinians.
The problem with this critique goes beyond the fact that it is not the earthshaking move that both its supporters and detractors claim it to be. Extending Israeli law into the settlements — which is all annexation is — is a technicality more than anything else. There is virtually no chance that Israel will repeat Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disaster in the West Bank by abandoning any of them in the foreseeable future. And even if it were applied to every single settlement rather than just the blocs that are close to the 1967 lines where most settlers live and that would be included in Israel in any peace plan, it would not prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. Or rather it wouldn’t if the Palestinians ever were willing to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn and accept a two-state solution, something they’ve never done.
Annexation will be added to the already long list of complaints that many Jews here have about Israel’s policies. It will also provide more fodder for anti-Zionist groups that will likely redouble their efforts to further divide American Jewry from the Jewish state.
But among the minority of Jews who are the most active supporters of the Jewish State and are the backbone of even moderate activist groups like AIPAC, there won’t be much outrage. Demographic changes that have reduced a sense of Jewish peoplehood among the unaffiliated and the non-Orthodox denominations have already taken a toll on backing for Israel. But among the groups that are most likely to be deeply engaged with it, support, or at least understanding, for annexation will be strong.
The World Zionist Congress elections held online earlier this year attracted a record number of voters and demonstrated an important point about Jewish opinion. The victory of slates that were either Orthodox or politically right-wing showed that the views of Israel’s most ardent supporters — i.e. the more than 100,000 who were willing to take the trouble to vote in a poll of Zionists — are much more in line with those of most Israelis than with the majority of American Jews. The slates from liberal groups and the non-Orthodox denominations had positions that were in line with the American Jewish population as a whole, but not among those whom Israel depends upon for activist support.
So while annexation will be deplored by most of those least involved with Israel, it will be cheered or rationalized by those who are the Jewish state’s most active supporters.
It’s entirely possible that Netanyahu, who always prefers to avoid confrontations, will ultimately pull back from implementing annexation. But even if he plows ahead with it, the impact on American Jewry — or at least the portion of it that cares the most about Israel — will be far less than the critics of Netanyahu and Trump are claiming.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a columnist for the New York Post. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.