Many Will Take Credit, but This Is the Real Reason Netanyahu Delayed His Annexation Plan

Benjamin Netanyahu may be a Litvak, but 17 months ago, facing a deadlocked election, he followed the advice of the Hasidic rabbi in the old story: He brought in a goat.

You know the story. The Hasid goes to his rabbi to complain about his living conditions in a tiny stuffy cottage, with a complaining wife, noisy children, in-laws. The rabbi advises him to bring a goat into the house and next week the Hasid is back complaining that on top of it all, he now has a goat bleating, shitting everywhere and chewing up whatever it can get hold of. Remove the goat, the rabbi says, and you’ll finally appreciate your home as it is.

Since he first brought it up in a Channel 12 interview on the eve of the first of the three consecutive elections, annexation has been Netanyahu’s goat. It has been and continues to be an excellent diversion for the Israeli electorate from the prime minister’s corruption and increasingly autocratic ways, and now from his failure to adequately plan an exit strategy from coronavirus lockdown, leading to an escalating second wave of the pandemic and no clear path out of the economic crisis.

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Annexation has served him on the international stage as well. For decades, the so-called international community has been pressuring Israel, to various degrees, to end the occupation, pull back from the territories, dismantle settlements and allow the establishment of a Palestinian state. Since annexation became an issue, the discourse has shifted to a much more comfortable place for Netanyahu: Just get rid of this goat. We can live with the occupation.

So now July has come, and with it the arbitrary date set in the Likud-Kahol Lavan coalition agreement from which Benjamin Netanyahu can bring the issue of annexation to the cabinet or Knesset. The fact that as of press time, nothing has yet happened on that front means little. It should have been clear from the outset that Netanyahu would have great trouble fulfilling his election promises from the three consecutive campaigns. Even the inclusion of annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank in Donald Trump’s deal of the century didn’t make it easier for him, as there would always have to be another side to the deal, one that Netanyahu could not force his right-wing base to swallow.

Israelis stand at an overlook at the settlement of Mitzpeh Yeriho in the Jordan Valley. Much of the Jordan Valley is slated for possible annexation by Israel in President Trump’s peace plan.Oded Balilty/AP

Netanyahu and his proxies will continue to claim that July 1 was never supposed to be the annexation date, just the beginning of the period in which the issue can be formally considered. Technically, they are not wrong. But the hype around the date has created a dynamic of its own. How much of this was planned?

Netanyahu certainly hasn’t planned the annexation. There is no map. No timetable. No drafts of legal documents to be brought to the cabinet or Knesset. All this reinforces the impression that annexation, at least for a significant part of the last 17 months, has been no more than a vague election promise to rally the right-wing base. But many who have spoken with Netanyahu in recent months have come away with the impression that at some point, at least since he managed to suborn Benny Gantz into serving in his government and secured his new term as prime minister, he fell in love with the idea. Annexation, or, as he calls it, applying Israeli sovereignty, expanding Israel’s borders so they include at least part of the biblical homeland, would be his historic legacy.