If there is something to be said about Prime Minister Netanyahu when it comes to running election campaigns, it is that he has a plan and he sticks to it, no matter how tired or repetitive it is. Netanyahu views capitalizing on the votes of the settler community as the key to winning elections and retaining power, and the central component of that strategy is giving West Bank residents and their supporters a reason to vote for Likud rather than for the smaller religious Zionist parties that constitute the Yemina faction. Israelis have thus become accustomed to Netanyahu’s patented eleventh hour announcements of new ways to move the West Bank settlement project forward, and in that regard this week did not disappoint.
Days before the first election of this seemingly endless Knesset campaign back in April of last year, Netanyahu promised, for the first time, to unilaterally annex West Bank territory and apply sovereignty to settlements. He did not specify precisely where or what, but pledged that if he won the election and formed a new government, some form of annexation would take place. While a vague and nebulous pledge – particularly viewed through the prism of the last few months of developments in West Bank policy – may not seem momentous today, at the time Netanyahu was the sole holdout among Likud MKs to not have publicly supported annexation, so his dropping all previous reservations was indeed a big deal.
The week before the second election in September, Netanyahu took things one step further. He held a press conference where he declared that if he were to win the election and form a new government, he would annex the Jordan Valley, and he provided a map of the precise territory he was aiming to annex. This was the first time that Netanyahu had made an annexation pledge that delineated the precise territory involved. His identification of the Jordan Valley as the first target drew Benny Gantz and Kachol Lavan to rhetorically support the move as well, due to the area’s prominence in Israeli security doctrine.
The Trump plan’s release raised the stakes on Netanyahu’s favored campaign gambit in a significant way. The Trump administration’s conceptual map gives Israel not only the Jordan Valley but the big blocs along the Green Line and the fingers emanating north and south from Jerusalem, altogether constituting 30% of the West Bank. It creates Israeli territorial enclaves to absorb all settlements that lie outside of the contiguous annexed territory into Israel. Promising to annex the Jordan Valley at this point is child’s play, so Netanyahu had to come up with something that would move the ball even further down the court.
To wit, Netanyahu announced this week that he was advancing plans in the two most contentious spots in the area immediately in and around Jerusalem: E-1 and Givat Hamatos. Both spots were previous redlines for the U.S. and the E.U., leading not only Netanyahu but Ariel Sharon to put construction plans into deep freeze. The reason both E-1 – which is just east of Jerusalem between the capital and Ma’ale Adumim – and Givat Hamatos – which is in south Jerusalem opposite Bethlehem – are particularly contentious is because once those two neighborhoods are built, they will fill in the last two holes that provide contiguity between East Jerusalem and Palestinians in the West Bank and in Bethlehem, thus encircling the city entirely with Jewish neighborhoods. Building E-1 will also make the route for Palestinians between Ramallah and Bethlehem – one that used to go through Jerusalem as the most direct line linking the two Palestinian cities – even more circuitous than it is now, pushing it beyond the outskirts of Jerusalem and toward the Dead Sea and ensuring that transportation and commerce between the northern and southern West Bank is even more difficult.
In Givat Hamatos, Netanyahu lifted a self-imposed freeze and announced that building tenders would be issued for 3,000 homes that have already gone through the planning and approval process. In E-1, Netanyahu announced that previous plans to build 3,500 homes would be submitted for deposit and officially published, starting a 60-day clock when objections to the plans can be filed. Whether or not these houses actually get built is an open question, and those who are dubious of Netanyahu’s intention to actually follow through and view this as an empty and predictable gambit to win more votes have plenty of historical justification for their skepticism. E-1’s plan has been deposited twice before, in 2004 by Sharon and in 2012 by Netanyahu himself. The plan to build Givat Hamatos was introduced in 2012, and final approval for construction of the exact same housing units that Netanyahu announced this week was given in 2014. Yet for both plans, not one house has been built, and in the case of E-1, Netanyahu actually canceled tenders in 2013 that the Housing Ministry had issued. Netanyahu has a long history of announcing the same plans to build houses over and over again, treating each announcement as a new plan since he never follows through on the original one.
Despite this, these latest Givat Hamatos and E-1 declarations cannot be blithely dismissed. The Trump plan has changed the fundamental environment in which Netanyahu and Israel are operating, and that will become even more acute should Monday’s election result in the same deadlock as its two forebears. In a world in which Givat Hamatos and E-1 are a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of West Bank territory that the Trump administration has greenlit, and where David Friedman, Yariv Levin, and the rest of the U.S.-Israel annexation committee are determinedly touring hilltops outside of Ariel in the rain, the pressure to actually follow through is heightened. Doing so becomes the next and most obvious move for Netanyahu in the period before a fourth election, as a way of shifting just one or two seats and finally breaking the impasse should it continue to hold after March 2.
Israel Policy Forum released a comprehensive study this weekexamining the advantages and disadvantages to a two-state solution and six frequently mentioned alternatives, and one of the report’s conclusions is that for a variety of reasons, continuation of the status quo is likely to hold. But the study’s corollary to that is that the Trump plan has altered the dynamic in such a stark way due to its territorial components that it significantly shifts the balance away from the status quo and toward a post-annexation one-state outcome. Netanyahu’s moves this week on E-1 and Givat Hamatos demonstrate how this works in practice in the clearest possible manner, and for that reason, the skepticism that this time will be different and that the status quo will continue to reign needs to be tempered and rethought.
Regarding E-1’s plan in 2012, there was a presidential race in the US that year. I expect PM Netanyahu was hedging his bets. After President Obama won the election, the E-1 plan needed to be walked back.
While it seems likely the same behavior is being done now, I wonder with President Trump’s “Peace through Prosperity” plan necessitates a walk back if a Democrat wins the White House. If PM Netanyahu wins re-election, my gut feeling is E-1 will proceed. There is no need to wait for November results.