In recent weeks, it seems as if Prime Minister Netanyahu talks about little beyond his desire to annex the Jordan Valley. He has brought it up as a reason for Likud voters to trust him rather than his internal rival, Gideon Sa’ar. He has raised it in a phone call with President Trump that he later publicized. He claims to have put it front and center on the agenda for his meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Lisbon last week, though the State Department disputes Netanyahu’s contention that he presented such a proposal in Portugal. And he has most prominently wielded Jordan Valley annexation as a weapon against Benny Gantz, painting Gantz as duty-bound to join him in a unity government in order to carry this policy out and as selfishly and irresponsibly forsaking a historic opportunity to cement Israel’s hold over the West Bank. As I noted last week, the political benefit for Netanyahu from all of this is fairly self-evident.
Far less self-evident is why Gantz played along for an extended period of time. Gantz and Kachol Lavan do not hold the same position on Jordan Valley annexation as Netanyahu and Likud, yet they spent months going out of their way to muddy the waters on that question. They got no political benefit from pretending to take the same stance, and if they believed that they would reap some reward from feigning alignment with Netanyahu’s outlook, their deliberate ambiguity on the subject is certainly not winning anyone over. There is a lesson in here for Gantz and any future opponents of Likud about how to approach security issues and why playing follow the leader is not a good strategy.
When Netanyahu announced his intent to annex the Jordan Valley in September, Kachol Lavan’s statement in response was an exercise in dissembling. The opposition party accused Netanyahu of adopting Kachol Lavan’s Jordan Valley plan but did not call for annexation or sovereignty, instead vaguely referring to the territory remaining part of Israel. Gantz has consistently spoken about the need for Israel to maintain security control over the Jordan Valley, which is about as mainstream a position within Israeli security and political circles as exists, but has not endorsed annexation. While Gantz has not spoken about annexation, others within Kachol Lavan have, contributing to the mixed signals. Bogie Ya’alon, one of the other three members who make up the party’s “cockpit” of decisionmakers, responded to Netanyahu’s annexation talk by tweeting last week that a national unity government led by Gantz could annex the Jordan Valley in less than five months.
None of this is going to help Kachol Lavan siphon off right-wing voters from Likud, and more importantly, it smacks of dishonesty driven by trepidation. Kachol Lavan is led by three former chiefs of staff, yet it is so terrified of being discredited by Netanyahu on security issues that it is hesitant to point out the obvious to Israeli voters, that Jordan Valley annexation is not a security measure, but a political ploy. This is a trap that a string of Netanyahu challengers have stumbled into, believing that advancing a different security narrative than the one that Netanyahu has spun is a path to electoral defeat, when instead it only reinforces Netanyahu’s veneer of authority and his most potent electoral argument, which is that only he can be trusted with Israel’s security.
But the Jordan Valley annexation argument has nothing to do with security. As my colleague Ilan Goldenberg cogently laid out, the Jordan Valley is indeed important for Israel’s security, but security control can be maintained, as Israel currently does, without annexing it, and it can be further enhanced without annexing it. The key to enhancing it though lies in even tighter and more robust security cooperation with Jordan, and annexing the Jordan Valley will put that relationship at risk. Netanyahu was warned about precisely this outcome by current Israeli high ranking security officials, yet he has been undeterred in continuing to argue that annexation is about security. In a similar vein, the International Criminal Court prosecutor – the same prosecutor who earlier this month declined for the third time to bring any charges against Israel stemming from the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla incident – publicly expressed concern about Jordan Valley annexation, and Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit warned Netanyahu that there would be far-reaching international consequences for Israel should he proceed with his plan.
Netanyahu’s Jordan Valley annexation proposal is not a security imperative. It is an ideological imperative being dressed up in security clothing. It is being pushed by people who deeply believe in Israel’s natural, historical, and in some cases, divine right to control the biblical Land of Israel, which is a perfectly legitimate and understandable position to take, but there should be no mistaking what the motivation is. And this is where Kachol Lavan’s error comes in. There is no reason for any Israeli opposition party to take counterintuitive security positions just to distinguish themselves from Netanyahu, but the corollary is that there is also no reason to follow Netanyahu’s security positions just to avoid the risk of being exposed on an ideological front. When Netanyahu’s security agenda is not actually about security, Kachol Lavan should not be afraid to say so loudly and clearly.
This entire episode has been a missed opportunity. It has been a missed opportunity not only to distinguish Kachol Lavan from Netanyahu and speak to Israelis like adults, rather than pandering to the ideology of the far right, but also a missed opportunity to seize control of the security agenda from Netanyahu’s decade-long stranglehold over it. Gantz should not be afraid to point out that annexing the Jordan Valley is unnecessary in order to maintain security control over it, and that unilaterally annexing it is actually a risky security move rather than a smart one. He should not allow Netanyahu to make dubious security claims that he can easily dispute on multiple grounds. And he certainly should not be afraid to challenge Netanyahu on this issue when he has not gained anything politically from his current tack. It would be refreshing to see the Israeli opposition actually advance its own security argument rather than hide in fright of Netanyahu’s shadow.