Is West Bank annexation imminent?

Is West Bank annexation imminent?

Warnings from groups here of ‘permanent occupation’ if right-wing bloc re-elected

Otzma Yehudit party leaders Michael Ben-Ari, left, and Baruch Marzel, in 2012. JTA
Otzma Yehudit party leaders Michael Ben-Ari, left, and Baruch Marzel, in 2012. JTA

Should Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party be re-elected April 9, some observers fear that the inclusion of the far-right, Kahanist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) Party in his next coalition government has set the stage for the government to approve the annexation of the West Bank.

David Halperin, executive director of the Israel Policy Forum, pointed out that there are currently 30 Likud Knesset members — 29 of whom are seeking re-election — and that all but Netanyahu himself are “on record as supporting West Bank annexation, entirely or in part.”

Otzma Yehudit’s platform calls for Israel’s sovereign borders to extend from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, and “enemies of Israel” within those expanded borders would be resettled elsewhere in the Arab world.

Halperin noted that Netanyahu “has long stood as an obstacle to various proposals that would advance legislative initiatives to annex part of or the entire West Bank. Given how much he has been willing to go to assure a strong right-wing bloc [Netanyahu invited Otzma Yehudit to join the coalition], it is conceivable if not likely that he would enable annexation to be advanced to assure his political survival.”

Such a move would be contrary to the will of the Israeli public, according to polls conducted over the past year in conjunction with the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and the Commanders for Israel’s Security. They found that although slightly less than half of Israelis support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and another 25 percent support unilateral separation, nearly 75 percent favor pragmatic and moderate solutions. In fact, only 15 percent said they would support annexation. 

Writing in The Washington Post, Gilad Hirschberger, associate professor of social and political psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, explained that security is still the primary concern of Israelis and that they are concerned the absorption of 2.6 million Palestinians might compromise their safety.

Halperin said, however, that his primary concern is not Otzma Yehudit’s “political power but about legitimizing racism in political discourse. … This episode shows just how far Netanyahu is willing to go to ensure his political survival.”

Logan Bayroff, a spokesman for J Street, said he found it “appalling that the prime minister personally orchestrated the key entry of this party into the next Knesset in order to assure his political survival.” He said that if they are successful on Election Day, “we will see an even more extreme right-wing government that is likely to adopt even more racist and discriminatory measures towards Palestinians, both in the occupied territories and inside Israel. This party’s platform suggests that the state should try to expel Israeli Arabs. Its supporters are Jewish supremacists who want to encourage the emigration of Arabs — not just from the occupied territories but from Israel itself.”

He said the American-Jewish community “needs to wake up to the danger that the Israeli government could move in the near future — to annex the West Bank and to formally end all hope of a two-state solution and Israel’s ability to remain both a Jewish and a democratic state.”

Otzma Yehudit’s platform states unequivocally its position on annexation and the establishment of a “permanent occupation” in the West Bank, observed Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. And she said re-electing a right-wing government “will only give permission for these extremists to carry out an expansionist fantasy that destroys Israel’s democracy, endangers the country’s very future, and turns Palestinians into a permanent underclass without basic human or civil rights.”

Asked how the Trump administration might react to such a move, Bayroff of J Street replied: “The Trump administration appears willing to rubber stamp whatever Netanyahu and the right want to do. But I think the American-Jewish community is increasingly horrified by the Israeli government’s turn towards the racist extreme right. The leaders of the major American-Jewish groups should make absolutely clear to the prime minister that his actions are endangering Israel’s future and severely harming its relationship with the United States.”

Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, said she too believes the Trump administration will take a hands-off approach should Israel move to annex the West Bank. She said the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has publicly said “he considers that all of the West Bank belongs to Israel. He uses the words, ‘us’ and ‘we’ when he means the Jewish people.”

She observed: “There are some in this administration who in all likelihood will not have a problem with that orientation.” 

Friedman added that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that the Trump administration was staying out of Israeli politics.

Pompeo told CNN that it is “not about to get involved in the election – to interfere in the election of a democracy. Election campaigns are tough. We’ll allow the Israeli people to sort this out.”

Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said that although she is not an expert on Israeli politics, she has observed how much clout the fervently Orthodox charedi parties have wielded that bear no relationship to their support in the country.

“One or two seats is not that much, but if they say they are going to pull out of the coalition and the coalition would collapse without them … the coalition would be willing to give them more power than they would normally get. And we have seen with coalition politics that small parties can wield a lot of power.”

Thus, she said, the challenge of Otzma Yehudit is “both real and symbolic. This is a party that has its roots in terrorist activity, and the fear is that it would erode democracy and the values we hold near and dear.”

But just how much clout it has will depend on how many seats Netanyahu’s coalition amasses, according to Daniel Mariaschin, CEO and executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International.

“We simply don’t know,” he said. “It’s too early in the political process. It doesn’t make sense to say this far in advance how it will all turn out.”

He pointed out that among the variables is the peace proposal the Trump administration is expected to unveil once a new government is formed that could help set the government’s agenda. In addition, he said, Israeli “political figures have been known to recalibrate” and alter their views because of new opportunities that arise.

Thus, Mariaschin said, columnist Yaakov Katz might be right when he wrote this week in the Jerusalem Post that should Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win re-election, “he will likely denounce Otzma just as he flipped a 180 after the last election with regard to a Palestinian state — during the campaign he said there would never be a Palestinian state, and after he won he changed his tone.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in an email that “like many other Jews we are troubled by the inclusion” of Otzma Yehudit in a possible next government, but he declined to say anything further in keeping with the center’s policy of not commenting on Israeli elections.

Stewart Ain is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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