Bibi is King of Israel – unless/until he goes to jail that is! The election results should not have come as a surprise, as the polls consistently pointed to a right-wing government. Let’s examine some of the major factors that will determine what is to come.
Donald Trump was merely being Trump when he tweeted that Netanyahu’s re-election “improves the prospects for peace.” With whom? Quite possibly with himself, considering what will be forthcoming in his long awaited “Deal of the Century” Middle East peace plan. But as regards Israel’s relations with the Palestinians there is only grief ahead. The question is how bad things will get.
Annexation is in the air and on everyone’s tongues. So are the serious legal charges against Netanyahu. The two factors are not unrelated, but how they will play out is harder to predict. Three types of annexation could occur. One possibility is what Netanyahu promised near the end of the election campaign: that all existing settlements will remain under Israeli sovereignty and that no Israeli settler will be removed. A second possibility is that part of the West Bank Palestinian territories will be annexed to Israel. A third is that all of the territories will be annexed. Each of these prospects is problematic, to say the least. But it is important to differentiate, particularly as regards the difference between the first option and the latter two.
It is likely that Bibi himself doesn’t know exactly where the annexation momentum is headed, nor is quite sure where he would like it to go. Keep in mind that Netanyahu has, until now, kept the annexationists in his governments in check. He has been something of a status-quo politician, except for his giving the green light to settlement expansion – which can be called creeping annexation. His saying that settlements will never be dismantled does not necessarily mean his doing more than stating this principle. Settlement expansion would no doubt continue and relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would further deteriorate. This would be bad enough. But at least a future Israeli government could take a very different position on removing settlements. The second and third annexation models mentioned above would sound a significantly greater death knell – much less reversible – for any future two-state peace agreement.
A few variables now enter the equation. Bibi is up on charges and could be found guilty by the courts within a year. Not surprisingly he wants the Knesset to pass an immunity law which would prevent a sitting prime minister from being imprisoned after being convicted. Or such a provision could come into force after Bibi has run out of legal appeals. What deal might he have to make for immunity? As strange as it may seem to many, Netanyahu is among the less extreme players in his larger coalition and indeed within his own party. These powerful elements may well demand annexation as a price for granting him immunity. It is a price Netanyahu may be willing to pay – especially with the backing of Donald Trump. But Trump will not be with us forever and Bibi knows how important the U.S. relationship is for Israel. Still, Bibi will want to save his own skin and therefore will want to please those to the right of him in his coalition, in exchange for passage of an immunity law. This they would probably do, but possibly not.
So, what does all this mean for the Israeli peace camp? First, the peace camp must find a way to more credibly relate to the Israeli public. Otherwise what passes for the centre will be more like a centre-right. That is in fact what happened in the recent election. Don’t count on Benny Gantz and company to be our spokespersons. They will oppose Bibi, but on their own terms. All peace camp organizations, including Peace Now, Meretz, the Commanders for Israel’s Security and, hopefully, a Labour party that finds its soul, will need to work together better. They will need to understand the different consequences of the various annexationist drives ahead and oppose them accordingly and with the vigour that each demands. Not easy tasks to be sure, but of utmost importance, as Israel is in many ways at a tipping point.
* Simon Rosenberg is a frequent commentator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was a founding member of CFPN and a former national chair.