LONDON: Benjamin Netanyahu has a deserved reputation for raising the stakes on the eve of knife-edge elections, turning them into a no-limits game.
In 2015, Israel’s prime minister scraped home to victory after warning on election day that the country’s Arab citizens were voting “in droves”. He later apologised for implicitly casting Israeli Arabs as fifth columnists. But it did the job.
AT IT AGAIN?
Some observers think he is at it again, as he bids for a record fifth term as prime minister, with the shadow of indictment for corruption hanging over him, and facing an even tougher contest in the general election from a centre-right alliance led by Benny Gantz, a former army chief of staff.
On Saturday (Apr 6), Mr Netanyahu pledged to annex huge swaths of the occupied West Bank on which the Palestinians still hope to build an independent state alongside Israel.
He said Israel would take not just the big clusters of Jewish settlements, mostly around Jerusalem, but also the settler outposts deep inside the West Bank.
“I will impose sovereignty, but I will not distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated settlements,” Mr Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 12 News. “I will not uproot anyone (among the Jewish settlers), and I will not transfer sovereignty to the Palestinians.”
Some argue this is just rhetoric fashioned for election eve by a canny politician who is ready to say anything but is fundamentally risk-averse. That view is almost certainly wrong.
ISRAEL MOVING TO THE RIGHT
It first of all underestimates how far the Israeli political spectrum has tipped to the right, pulled enthusiastically by Mr Netanyahu and a cast of extremists he has no compunction in embracing.
This should not be a surprise. Last year the central committee of his rightwing Likud party — whose charter expressly repudiates a Palestinian state — voted unanimously to extend Israeli sovereignty and law to “all liberated areas of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank)”.
If the polls are right, Mr Gantz’s coalition will narrowly beat Likud, but Mr Netanyahu will still have the better chance of forming another coalition — stretching even further to the far-right, and taking in groups that advocate the “transfer” of Palestinians to neighbouring Arab countries.
That alone makes it unlikely that the prime minister will tone things down.
Even in his outgoing government, his education minister Naftali Bennett was demanding annexation, while his justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, wants to draw the teeth of Israel’s high courts and extend Israeli law into the West Bank — de facto annexation and a two-pronged assault on the rule of law.
But the really fundamental change has been wrought by President Donald Trump, who has ripped up decades of US policy and international law on the Middle East.
Last year, Mr Trump recognised Jerusalem — including the Israeli-occupied Arab east of the holy city annexed after the Six day war in 1967 — as Israel’s capital and moved the US embassy there.
Last month he called for recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the same war and annexed in 1981.
Both these decisions were declared legally null and void by the UN Security Council — respectively in resolutions 478 and 497 — a decision made possible only because the US declined to use its veto, which it has wielded 41 other times since 1967 to shield its Israeli ally.
Mr Trump’s volte-face on Israel’s land-grabs seems aimed at boosting the threatened political fortunes of his friend Mr Netanyahu.
The idea that Mr Netanyahu will resist annexation because it cuts across the eternally delayed “deal of the century” — whereby Mr Trump will solve at a stroke the conflict between Jews and Arabs about how or whether to share the Holy Land — is laughable.
A PATH FOR THE ULTRA-RIGHT
Mr Trump and his point-man on this, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have been ticking off the Israeli right’s wishlist. There is, however, an underlying point lurking here.
Mr Trump’s endorsements of annexation, aside from delighting the West’s adversaries from Russia to China, are a gift to Mr Netanyahu’s irredentist rivals, such as Mr Bennett and Ms Shaked. They would put an eventual US imprimatur on something between applying Israeli law in most of the West Bank (the Golan model) or outright annexation (the Jerusalem model).
He has opened a path for Israel’s ultra-right to annex the West Bank, now home to almost 650,000 Jewish settlers, including the 200,000 in occupied Arab East Jerusalem, among close to 3 million Palestinians.
That would end any lingering hopes of an independent Palestinian state, and condemn future generations of Israeli Jews to the instability of living in a single state with Palestinian Arabs as second-class citizens — who would eventually outnumber them in the cramped and combustible space between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean.
That is why some Israeli leaders such as Ehud Barak, a former army chief and prime minister, have warned that the alternative to a two-state outcome was a single “apartheid state” that would undermine Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state.
That is also why even Mr Netanyahu, who has never actually been willing to give Palestinians more than some sort of supervised, supra-municipal government, saw pragmatic virtue in keeping the two-states scenario in play.
Mr Trump, in his casual geopolitical munificence towards his Israeli friend, has ended that. The annexation genie is out of the bottle.
This story, seen by Arabs as the colonisation of the Palestinians by Israel, is reaching the point of no return.