Chance of West Bank Annexation Is Fading, but Limited Move Still Possible

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly cited July 1 as the official date for releasing the plan for annexing the settlements in the West Bank. But the closer that date gets, the more questions arise.

There’s still no final map, still no green light from the United States and still no agreement between Likud and Kahol Lavan. Even the exhausting meetings about extending the school year look more promising right now that the contacts about applying Israeli law in the territories.

– LISTEN: How Netanyahu could fudge annexation, hoodwink Gantz and cling on to power

LISTEN: How Netanyahu could fudge annexation, hoodwink Gantz and cling on to power

Still, over the past week the assessment by all those involved in the matter is that a more limited move is still on the table. For Kahol Lavan to support such a step would depend on framing it as part of a broader diplomatic plan with international and regional support, or at least silence, perhaps even accompanied by gestures to the Palestinians, and not as a unilateral move. Politically, this is a nearly impossible task.

No one forced Netanyahu to cite a date so exact that any delay will immediately be considered a failure. He painted himself into this corner, just as he did when he hastened to promise a declaration on unilateral annexation immediately after the release of the “deal of the century” in Washington in January. Since then, not only has the head of the plan’s team, Jared Kushner, applied the brakes, but Benny Gantz has joined the government.

Once it became clear to the Americans that there was no chance that Netanyahu could set up a government without Gantz, the administration has consistently conditioned its recognition of the Israeli annexation of the settlements on Kahol Lavan’s agreement. The administration repeatedly explained to both partner-rivals, even before the plan was released, that it could not support a plan so controversial internationally if there wasn’t at least broad support within the Israeli government itself.

As a result, in recent weeks U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, an enthusiastic supporter of annexation, has been vigorously mediating between Netanyahu and Gantz to get them to agree on the character and timing of an announcement. This week Friedman got Netanyahu, Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi together for a discussion on the issue. Kushner, his adviser Avi Berkowitz, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer and Friedman’s right-hand man, Aryeh Lightstone, take turns participating in these discussions. According to sources familiar with their content, to date only one meeting of all those that have taken place could be described as “serious.”

Netanyahu was forced to admit at a Likud faction meeting Monday that annexation is being delayed because the map, which supposedly has been worked on since January by a joint Israeli-American team, still isn’t ready. But the problem isn’t the map or the date that everyone is so focused on. Their absence reflects the absence of a plan of action. The question right now is not whether or when there will be an annexation, but what annexation even means to all the parties.