Over the past 20 years the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been put in the background, not to say almost avoided, within Israel's political and public debate. Undoubtedly this was one consequence of the fact that the Oslo Process culminated with the half-failure of the Camp David summit. Even more, however, the debate was watered down by the attitude of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who made ambiguity and the status-quo the guidelines defining his position on the Palestinian issue.
Indeed, during the 11 years of his government, Netanyahu has been successful in shifting the focus on security and foreign policy towards other directions, especially Iran, while avoiding drawing too much attention to the Palestinian issue and to taking a clear position regarding the annexation of the Palestinian territories. He limited the use of this issue only at specific times, e.g. on the eve of important elections (like in 2015 and September 2019) in order to increase his electoral support.
Paradoxically, the Trump Peace Plan, although decisively leaning towards the Israeli side, has (intentionally or by chance) interrupted that comfort zone in which Israeli politics has spent the last twenty years. Moreover, the "Deal of the Century" was designed to involve both parties in a negotiation and decision-making process, but the choice of PNA President Abu Mazen to reject the peace plan in full, meant that the whole weight of the initiative fell into Israeli hands, further highlighting the decisional impasse.
These dynamics made the reason for Israel's confusion in taking a decision on how to proceed less understandable. Surely the stakes are very high: Netanyahu has undoubtedly understood the importance of the consequences of the annexation and is weighing the political benefits and the disadvantages it could gain or loose. The variables to be taken into consideration, both at the foreign and domestic policy levels, are numerous, complicated and interconnected with each other. To start with, the main Israeli defense and security agencies have openly warned against the potential negative consequences of an annexation. The most likely scenarios concern: the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, which would lead to a renewed spread of violence throughout the West Bank and in Gaza; diplomatic rupture with Jordan and Egypt; the compromising of diplomatic ties with the Gulf states, which have improved considerably in recent years and, no less important, the possibility of sanctions imposed by the European Union.
These perspectives made the absence of any net strategic advantage of the annexation clear, even in the event that it will include the Jordan Valley. For this reason, it is not enough to look at the regional dimension to try to understand Netanyahu motivations to proceed with annexation on July 1st.
Indeed, some considerations regarding the internal political plan are necessary. We have to keep in mind that the current Israeli government has been formed on the basis of an agreement between the two major parties Likud and Kahol Lavan and, according to this contract, Netanyahu is expected to leave his post of prime minister in October 2021, giving Gantz the premiership. This is a government coalition characterized by tense relationships and different visions regarding the most important issues (such as annexation) that, most of the times, do not converge. Netanyahu must take the stantpoints of his Defense Minister Benny Gantz and his Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi into account, if he wants to proceed with the unilateral implementation of the Trump Plan. In fact, Washington has made it clear that the green light for the Israeli annexation would only take place after an agreement has been reached within the government regarding the steps to be taken.
Despite this, this situation cannot be defined as a real veto power in the hands of Kahol Lavan. Netanyahu has enough power to threaten his government partners with holding new elections, in case the annexation is sabotaged internally. For this reason, Kahol Lavan ministers are trying to shape the decision-making process regarding the annexation without giving the prime minister the pretext to dissolve the government and, given that recent polls show Likud obtaining more than 40 seats and only 9 for Kahol Lavan, there is no doubt that Netanyahu is considering this scenario to improve the stability of his political position.
It must be kept in mind that, in the meantime, the prime minister has to face trial and that these legal proceedings have made him particularly interested in gaining as much approval as possible from the Israeli public so that it can be used as a political counterweight to face the court. On the other hand, however, surveys reveal that Israeli public opinion is largely indifferent to the issue of annexation; indeed, apart from the settlers lobby and some portions of the public belonging to the Israeli Left, the voters are mainly concerned about the Coronavirus pandemic and its economic consequences, which have seen a substantial increase in unemployment rates and the deterioration of the general economic situation. In the face of a minimal percentage of Israelis interested in annexation, Netanyahu is weighing the political value that such a move may, or may not, have in terms of electoral gain.
In any case, Netanyahu is preparing a series of possible alibis in case the annexation is postponed, not only by blaming Gantz, Ashkenazi and the international community, but also by being ready to take the opportunity to reshape the political camp of the Israeli Right, putting part of the blame to the settlers' lobby itself. In fact, the Yesha Council is divided into two opposing fields regarding the Trump Plan: one part opposes the "deal of the century", underlining how the 30% of the territories that would be annexed actually creates space for the creation of a Palestinian state; while the other group would adhere to Washington's proposal in order to grasp this historic opportunity.
The paradox of the annexation is that, in recent weeks, Israel has been brought closer to the idea of the creation of a Palestinian state than it ever has in the past 20 years: even some founding figures of the settler movement are accepting not only that any form of annexation could be limited, but even the implicit principle of a Palestinian statehood.
It can be noticed that not only there is discussion about whether annexation will take place but also about how this annexation will take place, bringing back to the center of public debate some versions of the Allon Plan conceived by Mapai (Labor Party) in the 60s. In fact, Kahol Lavan initially supported a sort of plan that mirrored this vision focused mainly on the annexation of the Jordan Valley, but that as the days pass, it has turned into a limited-size annexation of the largest settlements around Jerusalem (Gush Etzion, Ariel and Ma'ale Adumim) supported by a large public consensus, giving in return to the Palestinians the municipal districts of Jerusalem that are separated from the barrier. Furthermore, Gantz is firmly convinced of carrying out this plan so as not to annex densely populated Palestinian areas and, in the event that part of this population finds itself within Israeli borders, to grant equal rights and citizenship.
The rumors of the last few weeks suggest that even Prime Minister Netanyahu is thinking of a symbolic annexation or, in any case, a limited one even compared to the 30% proposed by the Trump plan. Moreover, the current political situation in Israel shows that Netanyahu is waging a battle against the proliferation of new investigations against him and against the process already underway, thus providing an additional perspective in the attempt to understand the decision-making process behind the annexation.
It would therefore seem that the prime minister is trying to align all the elements, including the annexation, which could converge in improving his internal political position, without compromising his long-term relation with the White House, without damaging diplomatic relations essential for Israel and emerging again as the only leader in Israel capable of ensuring that national interests are achieved.