How far will Israel go in annexing the West Bank?

How far will Israel go in annexing the West Bank?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent pledge to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank, has raised fears that annexation is imminent. 

A few days before Israel’s April election earlier this year, Netanyahu called for the ‘gradual extension of Israeli sovereignty’ throughout the West Bank. The scope of his annexation pledge includes settlements located in Area C– home to almost 400,000 settlers.

Although Netanyahu’s Likud party claimed victory in April’s elections, talks to form a coalition government collapsed and Israelis will go back to the polls in September. The need to win the support of far-right parties, coupled with Netanyahu’s legal troubles and the seemingly unconditional support of the Trump administration, has led to the narrative that Netanyahu will be forced to annex parts of the West Bank. However, a closer look at the domestic and international political dynamics suggests that annexation is far from assured.

Netanyahu’s fight for survival

Despite what appeared to be a strong showing in April’s poll, Netanyahu is in a highly vulnerable position. Having not won enough seats to govern in its own right, Likud was forced to enter into coalition talks with an array of Ultra-Orthodox, far-right and secular-nationalist parties. Post-election coalition talks ultimately floundered, as Netanyahu and his former ally, Avigdor Lieberman, failed to find an acceptable common ground. In exchange for signing up his Yisrael Beiteinu party to a coalition government, Lieberman demanded that ultra-Orthodox students be forced to undertake military service. This was unacceptable to the ultra-Orthodox Shas and the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) parties, who have sixteen seats compared to Yisrael Beiteinu’s five.

Netanyahu is also facing indictment on three corruption cases, two of which involve attempts to gain favourable media coverage. More recently, Netanyahu’s wife Sarah is now officially a convicted criminal, after she pled guilty to misleading officials regarding approximately $50,000 worth of takeaway food delivered to the Netanyahu residence. Although Mrs Netanyahu avoided jail time, there is a realistic possibility that her husband will end up in jail if Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit formally decides to proceed with indictment after a hearing scheduled for October.

Pro-annexation parties as kingmakers?

To avoid jail, Netanyahu’s best bet is to pursue immunity from prosecution. Netanyahu could either pass a new bill making judicial immunity an automatic right of all Knesset members, or neuter the power of the Supreme Court to challenge the judicial immunity of a politician whose immunity is supported by the majority of Knesset members. To achieve this and indeed to even form a new government, Netanyahu will probably need the support of the United Right party, who are offering political support and immunity in exchange for annexation of the West Bank. This dynamic led to the theory that annexation is imminent.

However, the problem with this theory is that none of the other parties that Netanyahu will need to rely upon – Shas, UTJ, Yisrael Beiteinu or Kulanu, who collectively won 25 seats in April – explicitly advocate annexation. These four parties either have more moderate approaches towards annexation or are purely focused on serving the social and economic interests of their constituents. Going too far with annexation could actually put potential coalition partners off, especially Kulanu and Yisrael Beiteinu.

The ‘deal of the century’

The other element supporting the idea that annexation is imminent has been the unabashedly pro-Israeli approach of the Trump administration. Trump’s recent recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and his administration’s muted response to Netanyahu’s annexation pledge has raised fears that Trump will consent to annexation.

Some analysts have also suggested that the Palestinian’s inevitable rejection of the Trump administration’s ‘deal of the century’ – Israeli-Palestinian peace plan – which sources indicate will not offer Palestine full statehood, will give Netanyahu an excuse to pursue annexation. The recent assertion of the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, that Israel has a ‘right’ to annex parts of the West Bank, has only added to such speculation. With there being a reasonable chance that Trump’s presidency will end in 2020, a more favourable chance to pursue annexation may never present itself.

Reading the tea leaves

The make-up of Israel’s next government will go a long way in determining the possibility of annexation. At this stage,  opinion polls suggest that Netanyahu will again be the only one capable of forming government, with the support for the opposition Blue and White party falling slightly. With Lieberman proving to be a thorny customer, another potential ally, Naftali Bennett, will look to unite small right-wing parties backing annexation into a party capable of winning enough votes to pass the electoral threshold. With Bennet’s support, Netanyahu is still likely to need support of Lieberman, whose share of the vote is projected to rise.

Even if Netanyahu can form government with increased support from pro-annexation parties, it is likely that the majority of his coalition partners will not explicitly back annexation. This increases the possibility that Netanyahu will try means other than annexation to satisfy Bennett and the United Right.

The other factor in this equation is Israel’s international relations. Annexation would be highly likely to negatively impact Israel’s increasing diplomatic normalisation with Gulf States and extensive cooperation with Egypt. Even if Trump supports annexation, the Democrats certainly do not. Netanyahu’s annexation pledge has been condemned by normally pro-Israel Democrats. Several prominent Democrats including next-generation Alexandria Oscasio-Cortez, presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg have all tabled cutting military and economic aid if annexation occurs. Annexation could also further alienate elements of the Jewish diaspora – particularly in the US – some of whom resent Israel’s increasing illiberalism.

The only possible scenario where annexation could occur, is if it is a non-negotiable demand of both Bennett and the United Right, forcing other right-wing parties to acquiesce in the interests of forming a viable coalition. Even in this scenario, annexation will be highly likely to be limited to major settlement blocs close to the 1967 Green Line, like Ma’ale Adumim. A full annexation of Area C, let alone the entirety of the West Bank, is highly unlikely to occur anytime soon. Ultimately, given the combination of domestic and international dynamics, the most probable situation is that Israel will refrain from pursuing annexation for at least the medium term.

About Author

Henry Storey

Henry Storey is currently completing his Master of International Relations degree at the University of Melbourne and interning at the Humanitarian Advisory Group. Henry is a political risk analyst at Foreign Brief and an editor at Young Australians in International Affairs and has also been published on multiple platforms including The Strategist and Outlook - Australian Institute of International Affairs. Henry’s primary area of expertise is Middle Eastern politics, but he also likes to dabble in events closer to home in the Asia-Pacific region.