In what was intended to be a dramatic announcement on Tuesday with his cabinet members in attendance, Prime Minister Netanyahu for the first time revealed his specific plan for proceeding with West Bank annexation. Netanyahu stated his intention to annex the Jordan Valley following Israel’s election on September 17, and to apply sovereignty to Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank following the release of President Trump’s plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. While more concrete in its details, Netanyahu’s announcement was reminiscent of his more nebulous pledge in April a few days before Israel’s last election to begin annexing West Bank territory, which has still not been acted upon.
Many inside Israel, including right-wing politicians from Yamina – whose primary campaign message is West Bank annexation – made light of Netanyahu’s announcement. After all, Netanyahu has a history of stating his intentions without ever following through. When it comes to West Bank issues, be it annexation or new settlement construction, the right has long been wary of Netanyahu’s commitment to the cause. But to dismiss Netanyahu’s latest promise of his intention to upend the West Bank’s status quo as empty electioneering is a mistake. It is precisely because it is smart electioneering that its effects will be far-reaching, irrespective of whether Netanyahu sees his plans through or not.
That Netanyahu’s first identification of specific territory that he plans to annex was the Jordan Valley was not done on a whim. The Jordan Valley is the most important part of the West Bank for Israel’s security purposes because it abuts the territory’s high ground along the mountain ridge, and is the first line of defense should a hostile regime ever emerge in Jordan. Israel’s first strategic settlements were placed in the Jordan Valley for this reason, and during previous rounds of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, one of Israel’s core security demands has been a continuing IDF presence in the Jordan Valley. Politicians from the left to the far right speak about the Jordan Valley in a similar manner to how they speak about the Golan, and the idea of Israel picking up and one day vacating the Jordan Valley entirely is a political non-starter.
Indeed, Benny Gantz has spoken throughout the last campaign and the current campaign about the need for Israeli control of the Jordan Valley, presumed to mean over security; making the jump from security control to outright annexation is only a short journey. It is precisely for this reason that Netanyahu’s announcement on Tuesday was smart politics that put Gantz back on his heels. It allowed Netanyahu to portray his first step in the annexation process as being driven by security needs rather than Greater Israel ideology, and also put his political opponents on the defensive. Because of the Jordan Valley’s important security role, opposing its annexation is much harder than opposing annexation of other parts of the West Bank.
Gantz was indeed hard-pressed not to support Netanyahu’s position so as not to risk his own security credentials or turn off moderate but security-minded Israeli voters, and Kachol Lavan’s statement in response to Netanyahu’s announcement was to take credit for the policy in the first place and to reiterate that the Jordan Valley will be part of Israel forever. While not adopting the term annexation, saying that “the Jordan Valley will always be ours” sends the same message, even if it is designed to be purposely ambiguous. While this is not going to move any right-wing voters away from Likud and toward Kachol Lavan, it may scare off some potential Kachol Lavan voters and send them to Democratic Union or Labor. It all ends up redounding to Netanyahu’s political benefit, as the potential for Likud to gain an edge in mandates over Kachol Lavan grows, and Kachol Lavan fails to distinguish itself from Netanyahu and Likud in yet another sphere.
But political considerations aside, Netanyahu’s gambit will have real policy consequences. Because it is so difficult politically to oppose, simply raising the idea of Jordan Valley annexation will shift the Overton window on the annexation question, whether or not this specific move is ultimately realized. Instead of having a more basic debate on whether annexation writ large is good or bad, whether it will safeguard Israel’s security or make its security challenges even more acute, whether it makes sense to discard the two-state paradigm and put Israel’s Jewish and democratic character at risk or seize the opportunity to make Israel’s hold on the Jewish biblical homeland permanent, annexing the Jordan Valley will become the new baseline. It makes any further annexation an ordinary extension of existing policy rather than an extraordinary break with all previous Israeli policy dating back over half a century.
Not only will it shift the Israeli mindset on just how drastic annexation is, it will make it harder to ever resume a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace process, even when the current generation of Israeli, Palestinian, and American leaders is off the scene. The gap between the minimum that the Israeli and Palestinian sides can accept is already wide enough, which is part of the reason that each side believes itself to be more serious than the other at achieving a negotiated resolution. Every time a new marker is laid down, it resets the equation and creates a new baseline position that one side or the other cannot easily move away from. Whether or not Netanyahu actually annexes the Jordan Valley, Israeli politicians and Israeli voters are now conditioned to think of 30% of the West Bank as being beyond the legitimate scope of negotiations for Israeli territorial withdrawal, and reversing that mindset will be exceedingly difficult.
The U.S. may yet contribute to this unhelpful dynamic. When President Obama demanded a full Israeli settlement freeze early in his administration, then later backed off what proved to be an excessive request, he set the parties up for failure. Obama’s position, which the Palestinians themselves had not called for as a condition to enter into negotiations, became their new baseline, since they could not accept less than an outside party. Here too, if the Trump administration backs Netanyahu’s position on the Jordan Valley, it will bind the hands of any future prime minister, who will not be able to demand less for Israel than what the U.S. has acceded to.
Netanyahu may have no intention of annexing the Jordan Valley on the first day of his next term, should he win another one. He may have no intention of declaring Israeli sovereignty over the settlements. But he has kicked off a process of conditioning Israeli voters to think of the West Bank in radically new terms, trapped his main opposition into saying that their position is indistinguishable from his, and made it harder for any future Israeli leader to make territorial compromises. To dismiss this as empty campaign rhetoric is to miss the fact that empty rhetoric oftentimes leads to a new reality, irrespective of what the speaker’s actual intentions happen to be.