I came out swinging last month in favor of Israel declaring sovereignty over parts of Judea and Samaria. My position has evolved. Specifically, I am starting to think that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't plan on immediate, large-scale annexation, but instead has modified his gevalt strategy for the realm of international relations. If I'm right, then well-played, Bibi, well-played.
In domestic politics, Netanyahu has proven a master bluffer, convincing the Israeli public time and again that the Likud Party faces imminent electoral onslaught that can only be curbed by voting Likud instead of smaller right-wing parties. Here, the bluffed "catastrophe" is Israel taking drastic and unilateral actions counter to the flawed consensus on resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
By making the world believe that he's serious about annexing vast portions of the West Bank—the Jordan Valley included—Israel has acquired unprecedented leverage as it seeks normalized relations with Arab countries and European acceptance that the settlements are here to stay.
By making the world believe annexation is imminent, Israel has acquired unprecedented leverage.
I proposed annexation when the world was on lockdown and preoccupied with combating COVID-19. In an idealized execution of my proposal, Israel would have quietly annexed territory while governments were still scrambling to contain a global health crisis. When all was said and done, annexation would have been long said and done. That window of opportunity has closed, and the international community's fixation on Israel has predictably re-emerged.
Under today's conditions, annexation might not be the smartest move, especially considering the alternative of inviting the Palestinians back to the negotiation table and letting them reject compromise for the millionth time, all the while spending what could be (and hopefully aren't) the final months of the Trump administration building settlements on every last square inch desired for eventual acquisition.
A Gulf Arab diplomat put it best: "Why doesn't Israel let the clock run?"
A Gulf Arab diplomat put it best: "Why doesn't Israel let the clock run and show that [Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud] Abbas isn't serious about peace. To pursue annexation will shift all the focus to Israel, which will be subject to global condemnation."
As aptly posed by Joel Rosenberg, who interviewed that diplomat, it's "the settlements or the Saudis?"
The wisest course of action is the Saudis today while temporarily leaving the settlements in legal limbo (but still building vigorously) for a little longer. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of the Gulf monarchy, has made clear that his patience with the Palestinians has worn thin. If Israel can secure a commitment that the Saudis will not oppose annexation when the Palestinians refuse to accept a peace deal in a reasonable period of time, then it makes sense to pause on annexation.
Now is the time for Israel to consider cashing in on the leverage it has built over the past several months by making the world believe that massive annexation is imminent. In exchange for agreeing to slow the pace—something the Trump administration has already hinted it deems desirable—Israel should request immediate diplomatic recognition from the Arab Gulf.
The United Arab Emirates' ambassador to the United States wrote op-ed on June 12 that was published in Yediot Achronot, Israel's most circulated Hebrew newspaper, imploring Netanyahu to back away from annexation. Israel should invite him, along with the Emirs of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, to make their case to the Israeli people in person, just as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat did in 1977.
Establishing formal ties should not be done quietly, and doing so out in the open, with the United States taking lead as the mediator, would be a smart move. Trump, a key proponent of Israeli-Gulf relations, could use a major diplomatic victory as he faces a tough re-election campaign, and the Israeli-Gulf alliance could use another four years of Trump.
Both know that a return to the Obama administration's Mideast policy, an inevitability if Joe Biden becomes president, will be a return to appeasing Iran at the expense of regional security.
Looking beyond the Gulf, Netanyahu deserves credit for getting Europe to nearly forget about its previous favorite boogeyman of Jews building homes on disputed soil. If Israel is to back away from formally incorporating all settlements, it should demand concessions such as a commitment from E.U. members to abstain on all resolutions related to Israel at the United Nations; a tangible plan to alter its discriminatory product-labeling for settlement goods; and a review of aid to the Palestinians that perpetually reaches the hands of terrorist-affiliated entities. Like in the Gulf, European perspectives on Israel are gradually shifting. Civilizationists, those fighting leftist attempts to erode European culture by rubbing their noses in diversity, have gained an irreversible foothold in European politics. Already, Israel has learned that it can rely on fellow nationalist governments like Hungary and Austria to oppose unfriendly E.U. action.
Just as Israel should exercise prudence in not placing undue pressure on its Gulf allies, so, too, should Israel make life easy for its European allies.
With the most recent reports suggesting that the Israeli prime minister will, at most, stick to annexing only the large settlement suburbs near Jerusalem, it would be wise to continue the facade of grander annexation in the background. When others prove willing to compromise, Israel will as well.
Matthew Mainen is a Washington-resident fellow at the Middle East Forum and graduate of Stanford Law School. Follow him on Twitter.