TIC Analysis l

Israel’s 35th government took oath on May 17, 2020 bringing to an end 16 months of political turmoil wrought by three inconclusive elections. New government was scheduled to be installed following April 2019 elections but with no single party able to secure majority, new elections were announced. Snap elections were held on September 17, 2019 and March 2, 2020 with no conclusive results. Finally on April 20, 2020, an agreement was reached between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party to form National Unity Government.

Under the agreement, power would be shared between the two parties. Also, both Netanyahu and Gantz will take turn being prime ministers. Netanyahu is to be prime minister until October 2021, with Gantz serving as vice prime minister. After that time the men are to exchange roles. Several watchdog groups in Israel took to the Supreme Court to block the formation of the government due to the indictment of Netanyahu. However, Israel’s Supreme Court on May 6, 2020 allowed Netanyahu to go ahead with the plan and form the government, removing any legal impediment in the way.

On May 7 2020, Israeli lawmakers assembled in Knesset following the rulings of court clearing Netanyahu to lead a coalition government. The purpose of the lawmaker was to put in place a new government.  Finally on May 17 2020, after more than 500 days without a stable government, lawmakers in the 120-seat parliament approved a three-year coalition, with 73 voting for and 46 against. One member was absent. The 35th government since Israel’s creation in 1948 includes representatives from across the political spectrum, with a record 34 to 36 cabinet seats. Cabinet posts have been assigned to the left-wing Labour party, Blue and White, Likud and leaders from conservative ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.

Meanwhile, annexation of parts of West Bank and Jordan Valley was central to Netanyahu’s election campaign and possibly the first agenda his coalition government will take up in Knesset. Article 29 of the national unity government agreement between Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White coalition, agreed to on April 20, 2020, opens the door to territorial annexations in the West Bank. The exact wording is:”As of July 1, 2020 the Prime Minister will be able to bring the agreement reached with the United States regarding the application of sovereignty for discussion by the cabinet and the government and for the approval of the government and/or the Knesset.”

Setting out two legislative paths to enact annexation, the deal appears to provide Netanyahu with an alternative route if he fails to gain a majority for annexation in the cabinet, where some half of the ministers will be Blue and White members. It is more likely to pass in the Knesset given that the right-wing Likud, Yamina, Yisrael Beytenu, United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, which all have voiced support for annexation, hold a majority there.

Netanyahu is confident that with US support, he will be able to go ahead with the unilateral annexation plans and block any move by UN to impede annexation. Once Knesset or Cabinet approves annexation of West Bank — US will move to deflect international pressure by legitimizing the annexation through recognition and hence cementing Israel’s merger of parts of West Bank.

Following annexation proposals might be tabled by Netanyahu before Knesset on July 1 2020:

  1. Annexation of Israeli settlements is the first of those proposals. Until 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu supported a two-state solution — as far his policy regarding the West Bank was concerned. However, a transition in this stance took place over the years and he became more and more hardliner. Prior to April 2019 elections, Netanyahu expressed his intention of annexing Israeli settlements in the West Bank. On 16 September 2019, in an interview with Israeli Army Radio, Netanyahu said “I intend to extend sovereignty on all the settlements and the (settlement) blocs,” including “sites that have security importance or are important to Israel’s heritage,” including the settlements in Hebron.
  2. Moreover, annexation of the Jordan Valley might also be a proposal which could possibly be tabled by Netanyahu in Knesset.
  3. Similarly, annexation of Area C, one of demarcated parts of West Bank, might also be tabled by Netanyahu.
  4. Some members of Israeli political community have also advocated for the annexation of entire West Back. However, it is unlikely that this would happen.

The final proposal will be presented by Netanyahu in Knesset on July 1, 2020 which is expected to include annexing parts of Jordan Valley as well as West Bank.

Meanwhile, White House has said that it would support Israel’s annexation proposals as long as it agrees to enter into peace talks with the Palestinians. US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has confirmed that the US is ready to recognize 30 per cent of Israel’s annexation of the occupied Palestinian West Bank. Friedman in an interview announced that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must negotiate with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas over the establishment of a Palestinian state in 70 per cent of the occupied West Bank, and the US will recognize Israel’s annexation of the other 30 per cent.

David Friedman’s statement regarding US recognition of 30 per cent of West Bank is in line with Trump’s ‘Middle East Peace Plan’ which proposed recognizing vast majority of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory as part of Israel. The plan also called for recognizing Jordan Valley which makes up a third of West Bank as part of Israel. Following map presented in the 181 page Trump peace plan corroborates with Netanyahu’s map.

Israel already claims jurisdiction over 42 per cent of the occupied West Bank. Washington’s tacit support to Tel Aviv in annexing almost 30 per cent of the areas of West Bank and Jordan Valley (as envisaged in Trump’s Peace Plan)  is a mere recognition of the status quo. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Israel on May 13 2020 to discuss Israel’s annexation plans with Netanyahu and Gantz. Although supportive of Netanyahu’s annexation plans, he urged Israeli leadership to exercise caution.

Despite US support and consensus among majority Israeli political leadership regarding annexation, Israeli academia and civil society have expressed strong resentment. 220 retired Israeli generals, admirals, and leaders from the Mossad, Shin Bet, and the police—members of Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS)—signed a full-page ad in Israeli newspapers on April 3 urging their erstwhile colleagues in government—namely Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, both of whom are former chiefs of staff of the Israel Defense Forces—to insist on blocking unilateral annexation of West Bank territory. They argued that annexation could undermine Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, which are a major pillar of US regional strategy. And furthermore, this reckless move wouldn’t just have adverse consequences for Israel’s security; it would also have implications for Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy.

Similarly, international community also reacted strongly to the proposed annexation plans. UK, France and Germany have labeled the proposed annexation plan as against UN Resolutions and International Law. Russia has also condemned the plan. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey have also rejected the possible move as outright occupation and violation of international law. Experts predict that if Israel goes ahead with annexation, it could fundamentally alter its relationship with Jordan with some saying that it might affect Israel-Jordan Peace agreement. Experts opine that Israel is going to lose significant international support and influence at international forums if it goes ahead with annexing parts of West Bank.

Israel with US support is likely to unilaterally annex Palestinian lands in occupied West Bank. However, this does not legalize the annexation under international law. Numerous UN resolutions and prevailing international opinion hold that Israeli settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights are a violation of international law, including UN Security Council resolutions in 1979, 1980, and 2016. UN Security Council Resolution 446 refers to the Fourth Geneva Convention as the applicable international legal instrument, and calls upon Israel to desist from transferring its own population into the territories or changing their demographic makeup through acts such as annexation.

Analyst in Israel believe that despite consensus on agenda as annexing Palestinian lands illegally, the lack of coherence and unity in the new coalition government will hamper governance and lawmaking. Lawmakers will be loyal to their respective blocs instead of the Prime Minister, hence weakening the office of the chief executive. Israel’s 35th Government is being billed by Likud and Blue and White as a “unity government,” but it is more likely to be defined by its disunity, and to be overwhelmed from the start by the mutual suspicion and petty politicking that drove the past year’s political deadlock.

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