Israeli Armoured Corps near the Gaza border

Drawing Lines in the Sand: Netanyahu’s Annexation Dilemma

Despite having secured the creation of a coalition government, plans to annex parts of the Palestinian West Bank – a cornerstone of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign – have yet to be formalised. With U.S. elections approaching, and a limited window to conduct the move, annexation is far from a sure thing. In this piece, Lewis Tallon examines the potential political impacts of such a move, and the obstacles standing in Netanyahu’s path.

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Israel’s new coalition government has so far refrained from taking any decisive steps towards implementing its controversial plans to annex part of the West Bank since a deal was struck between President Benjamin Netanyahu and his new coalition partner Benny Gantz (currently Israel’s Minister of Defence and its alternating Prime Minister), despite the move being a cornerstone of Netanyahu’s election campaign. This delay has brought significant uncertainty to the plans, with a rapidly-closing window of opportunity for the Israeli right to achieve its annexation goals.

Despite securing an agreement in principal for the annexation from Gantz and other coalition partners, Netanyahu faces substantial opposition to the move from within his (and Gantz’s) Cabinet, as well as in the Knesset. Those on the right advocating for annexation complain that the existing plans still fall short of their ideal goals, leaving some settlements isolated in Palestinian territory, while the centrist and leftist camps, mostly made up of supporters of Gantz, oppose the annexation altogether. Despite this, Netanyahu is keen to push ahead with the annexation plans, in part to distract from his ongoing corruption trial and fulfil key campaign promises.

The window of opportunity for Netanyahu is rapidly closing, incentivising action sooner rather than later. The lack of agreement over the plan within the coalition government is creating unease amongst the plan’s main supporters in the U.S. government. President Trump’s administration envisaged a bizarre form of bilateral annexation as part of its “deal of the century” peace plan, which it saw as an alternative to overt unilateral action (despite an almost immediate rejection by Palestinian leadership). Additionally, the annexation plan faces relatively firm opposition from U.S. Democrats and would likely not enjoy the support of presidential candidate Joe Biden. If Netanyahu is to fulfil his electoral promise of annexation, which was a key part in securing support from right-wing parties in the deadlocked 3rd election, he will likely need to do so prior to the U.S. elections in November.

Within Palestine, such a move would have clear and dangerous implications. An Israeli annexation would drastically undermine the already-fragile credibility of the Palestinian Authority, which Israel relies upon to administer the West Bank. A severing of relations with the Palestinian Authority, or even its outright collapse, would result in Israel assuming greater responsibility for security in the West Bank independent of the traditionally-precarious cooperation with Palestinian security forces (which has been suspended at present over the annexation dispute). Unilateral annexation would also almost certainly strengthen support for Hamas and Fatah against the already-troubling backdrop of increasing Hamas power in Palestine. The Palestinian Authority has witnessed a deterioration of credibility following longstanding corruption allegations, and an inability to prevent Israeli annexation would likely be a fatal blow to the administration.

Internationally, annexation could potentially lead to the European Union taking action, given the bloc’s consideration of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory as illegal. As a key trading partner of Israel, the threat of action from the EU has the potential to deter more extensive annexation plans, and has likely been a contributing factor to delays in any formal announcements since the establishment of the coalition government. Despite this, the bloc is limited in its ability to impose sanctions, given the inevitable tensions with the U.S. such a move would bring. Many U.S. states have implemented anti-boycott legislation in recent years that penalises companies for boycotts of Israel. With the Coronavirus pandemic already causing extensive financial strain, the European Union may seek to avoid an economic environment troubled by U.S. sanctions. Concurrently, the potential financial implications of international sanctions on Israel would come at a sensitive time for the nation’s economic recovery.

More locally, the annexation plans are relatively firmly opposed by Israel’s neighbours. Arab states, such as Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates (whom Israel has recently announced a much sought normalisation of relations with) have already pointed to annexation’s potential to provoke significant regional instability, and have threatened to break off diplomatic relations. This will not only impact information-sharing and other forms of security cooperation with Egypt and Jordan, but threaten to reverse more recent improvements in relations with wealthy Gulf states that are aligned with Israel on issues such as Iran. Netanyahu may be reluctant to squander his diplomatic progress in the Gulf over the last decade through unilateral annexation.

Overall, this means that despite his campaign promises and a desire to distract from his ongoing corruption trial, Netanyahu will be forced to weigh the international implications of annexation against the domestic policy desires of the Israeli political Right. Notably, without a united Knesset, Washington is unlikely to approve the process in the immediate future, and any such signal would be largely symbolic and provisional ahead of November’s election and a potential Biden victory.

In the meantime, operations on the ground will continue to be negatively impacted by greatly reduced cooperation from the Palestinian Authority with Israel, and the threat of rising domestic unrest and violent incidents in the region will continue to loom large. Any attempts in the coming weeks to move roadblocks or adjust perimeters will likely be met with fierce resistance. Isolated attacks on security forces in Jerusalem, as well as rocket attacks against Tel Aviv, are almost certain if the process of annexation begins formally.

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Lewis Tallon is a Doctoral Researcher and former Military Intelligence Officer with extensive experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa and Asia Pacific regions in a variety of geopolitical analysis, security & conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis specialises in geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, the financial sector and leading technology firms.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo: Israeli Defence Forces