The Netanyahu-Gantz collision course over annexation – analysis

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: REUTERS)
How did Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, the man who once dismissed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation pledge as “irresponsible,” suddenly become the politician on whose shoulders the whole plan rests?
The notion of the Blue and White leader as the savior of the annexation juggernaut, when Gantz rarely even mentions the word, is in one way consistent with his branding since the moment the former IDF general entered politics.
A cautious speaker, with an almost deadpan style of speech, the tall gray-haired politician is hardly the vision of the dynamic leader ready to jump into the fire pits of hell to save Israel from destruction.
Yet, from the start, he was cast as the one man who could save Israel from Netanyahu, the one man who could save the country’s legal system and its democracy, the one man who could revive the Left and, yes, the one man who could make peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world.
It has been Gantz’s style to allow others to control his brand, painting him with their hopes and fears, rather than setting his own tone. It is almost as if the role of Israel’s political chameleon, who easily changes his right- and left-wing stripes at will, suits him.
After 11 years of watching Netanyahu vanquish his political competition, Gantz has proved surprisingly elusive. His bloc received more votes than Netanyahu’s, giving people the impression that he might be the first prime minister to include the Arab parties in his coalition. Then he flipped 180 degrees rightward to join Netanyahu’s coalition, a move that sent his political cache in the centrist and left-wing camps tumbling.
Now, just when Gantz has appeared at his weakest and after Netanyahu took pains to ensure that legally he could not block annexation, Gantz has captured the stage of an initiative that the prime minister hopes will become one of his key diplomatic legacies.
On one hand, the two are separated by the thinnest of swords when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Neither of them support a two-state solution at the pre-1967 lines. They both believe the Jordan Valley and the settlement blocs should be part of sovereign Israel.
Under certain circumstances, based on his party’s platform, Gantz is not even opposed to placing the isolated settlements within sovereign Israel. Like Netanyahu, he wants normalized ties with the Arab world and to make peace with the Palestinians.
Introduce the word annexation, however, and a chasm opens up between them. Netanyahu comes to the application of sovereignty after a decade in which it seemed as if there were only three options on the table for Israel: an almost full withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines, maintaining the status quo or annexation.
The Obama administration’s support for the Palestinian stance that a peace deal must be based on the pre-1967 lines effectively erased the Israeli moderate left-wing diplomatic language from the entire dialogue. Gone was talk of Israeli retention of high-population centers in the settlements, known as the blocs, which had been an accepted concept under the Clinton and Bush administrations. People literally forgot that there had once been a term called “consensus” about which West Bank territory “everyone knew” would be part of Israel one day.
Emboldened by the changes, the right wing sharpened its holistic understanding of Judea and Samaria as one entity that would be folded into Israel because of historic right, with no geographical significance to the idea of isolating settlements or blocs, except as the basis for an annexation plan. Finally, even that last vestige was erased in the last half year as the talk has been of applying sovereignty to all the settlements and the Jordan Valley with US support.
The Israeli Right was looking at an almost complete ramrod success in which there was no talk of Palestinian statehood, simply Israeli historic rights.
Then just as Netanyahu appeared to be cruising to victory, the entire dialogue changed and moved backward as if in some strange time capsule.
Netanyahu was just on the verge of cementing his historic role as the Israeli right-wing leader who extended Israel’s sovereign borders to include portions of the biblical heartland, in this case the West Bank.
With that came the tantalizing possibility that he would also be the first Israeli leader to end the Israeli-Arab conflict by disconnecting it from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and normalizing ties between the Arab world and the Jewish state.
It almost seemed as if the Palestinians and Palestinian statehood were irrelevant to the process, or at the very least, only a mere nod of vague negotiations was needed.
To make the sense of victory more complete, Netanyahu’s philosophical stances were enshrined into US President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” which allowed for Israel to annex 30% of the West Bank at the start of the process. For months the dialogue was between Israelis and Israelis, the Left and the Right and/or the Right and extreme Right.
Then the Arab world woke up and rattled Washington and some Israeli security experts, with Jordan and the UAE stating that Israel could not both annex and maintain ties with its moderate neighbors.
In the past weeks the talk has been less about when to annex but rather how to salvage annexation. Within that context, the pendulum has suddenly swung from Netanyahu, whose coupling of annexation with normalized Arab ties suddenly seems like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole that could lead Israel to disaster, to Gantz, whose more moderate ideas on partial annexation in dialogue with the international community might salvage the situation. It was a move that was strengthened by Washington’s insistence that Gantz’s support for annexation was critical.
On Wednesday morning, Israelis woke to news reports on Kan about a possible Blue and White plan to annex just the blocs of Ma’aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion, which under some past peace plans had been presumed to be part of Israel. It’s a conciliatory plan that would be a kind of olive branch to the Arab world.
That was countered by a report in the Hebrew daily Israel Hayom, which said Netanyahu wanted to annex the isolated settlements first so that he could entice the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. It was a story that made it seem, as if once again, the Palestinians and Palestinian statehood were part of the debate.
When Netanyahu designed the coalition agreement between Blue and White and the Likud, he did so to ensure that Gantz could not veto annexation when it comes to a vote. But now it seems suddenly as if Gantz’s ideas are in the lead, with Netanyahu racing to catch up. Turns out Gantz might have the final say before Netanyahu even gets to bring the matter to a vote.


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