Israel nears a point of no return

By Ishaan Tharoor with Ruby Mellen

The coronavirus pandemic may be ravaging the world, but it proved the ultimate boon to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The public health emergency helped Netanyahu delay his corruption trial on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust until late May. And it created the pressures that enabled the wily prime minister to break the main opposition alliance against him, end the political paralysis that followed Israel’s third election in less than a year, and form the country’s 35th government with him, once more, at the head.

My colleagues reported last week on the complexity of the unity government forged between Netanyahu and former adversary Benny Gantz. “The painfully negotiated structure is both divided and multiplied, with power split between two hostile camps and the number of ministries inflated to create the largest bureaucracy in Israeli history,” they wrote. “Netanyahu and Gantz would rotate the prime minister’s role, with Netanyahu taking the first 18-month term. Each would serve as the other’s deputy, requiring parallel staffs and a second official state residence.”

Questions abound about the capacity of this team of rivals to govern and how Netanyahu’s trials will affect Gantz’s credibility. “From being the moral voice for the last 15 months by calling for the removal of an indicted prime minister, Gantz is now the indicted prime minister’s chief protector and defender,” wrote Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer.

And then there is the question of annexation. Nestled in the agreement between Gantz and Netanyahu is a clause to advance plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, along with the historic river valley that borders Jordan, starting as soon as July 1. This has long been in the works: With the blessing of the Trump administration’s widely-derided “vision” for “peace and prosperity” in the region, Netanyahu and his allies in the Israeli right hope to extend Israel’s sovereignty over at least some of the 128 Jewish settlements that now dot the West Bank.

Such a move, while cheered by pro-settlers groups in Israel and President Trump’s evangelical base in the United States, may be a non-starter for Israel’s Arab neighbors and is staunchly opposed by much of the international community, foreign policy grandees in Washington and major voices in Israel’s security establishment.

“Unilateral annexation has the potential to ignite a serious conflagration,” read a letter addressed to Gantz, a former military chief himself, and signed by some 220 former high-ranking officers in Israeli security agencies. “Any partial annexation is likely to set in motion a chain reaction over which Israel will have no control, leading to the collapse of the Palestinian security agencies and of the Palestinian Authority. This, in turn, would require Israel to take full control over the entire West Bank, and assume responsibility for the lives of its 2.6 million Palestinians.”

That’s a scenario with troubling implications for those who want Israel to be a Jewish-majority and democratic state. “If there is no Palestine, Israel will be doomed to become a binational state rather than a Jewish one, or else adopt an apartheid system in which millions of Palestinians are ruled by Israel but lack full political rights,” noted Jackson Diehl, The Post’s deputy editorial page director.

But annexation is not yet a fait accompli. Gantz is “lukewarm” on annexation, said Daniel Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, in a virtual briefing held by the centrist Israel Policy Forum, though he added that it’s unlikely Gantz “could or even would throw himself in front of that train” when Netanyahu sets it in motion.

Still, Shapiro argued that the “actual implementation” of any form of annexation “is impossible without a very intense technical process,” one that may be difficult for the Israeli government to sort out before the U.S. presidential election in November — when Netanyahu may see Trump, who encouraged Israel down this path, defeated by a rival who would want to yank the prime minister back.

Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential hopeful and former vice president, has warned against annexation and Israeli’s pursuit of policies that would jeopardize bipartisan support, especially from younger Democrats whose views of Israel have soured under Netanyahu’s long rule.

Critics on the left argue such consternation is too late. Trump’s predecessors, they say, didn’t do enough to halt the expansion of Israeli settlements nor face up to the reality of Palestinian disenfranchisement that already exists.

“For decades on end, it was the international community that did not ‘miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity’ to make an actual difference, offering words but no action through years of feigned concern,” wrote Hagai El-Ad, executive director of B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group. “Now, once again, concern is being expressed over ‘preserving the eventual possibility of a two-state solution.’ It is difficult to imagine framing the matter in weaker, vaguer, or more ambiguous terms.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel organization in Washington that supports a two-state solution, lamented how even Israel’s now much-diminished Labor party threw its lot in with Netanyahu, signaling the extent to which the political gravity is on the right.

“We are deeply disappointed that there hasn’t been a vocal opposition to what the government of Bibi Netanyahu is doing,” Ben-Ami told Today’s WorldView.

In the United States, it’s a different story. “For Democrats, the positions they are staking out” — particularly in opposition to annexation — “are the traditional bipartisan positions, the positions that Republican administrations used to take,” Ben-Ami said. But now, he added, Israel is no longer “outside the partisan maelstrom,” and has become for Republicans an object of America’s polarized culture wars.

“Between Netanyahu and Trump, they have made Israel a partisan wedge issue and are destroying decades of bipartisan support,” he said. (Courtesy: The Washinton Post).

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