Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to President Barack Obama, is the counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute. David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute and director of the Project on Arab-Israel Relations.
President Trump’s decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights was applauded across the political spectrum in Israel. While criticized internationally, including by Arab leaders, Israelis saw it as acknowledging an important reality: that this strategic plateau cannot be returned to Syria, especially in light of a catastrophic war in which roughly 500,000 have been killed, Bashar al-Assad gassed his own people, and Iran seized the opportunity to embed itself and Shiite militias in the country.
Those on the Israeli right saw it less for its security value and more for the precedent it would set for being able to annex much of the West Bank. The nationalist leader Naftali Bennett thanked Trump for his decision, claiming the Golan was now Israel’s forever and then added, “The land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel.” Golan, pointedly, was not part of historic Palestine or Israel, but of course the West Bank is — and that is what Bennett was signaling.
Perhaps because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is competing for right-wing votes, his own statements imply he is moving in a similar direction. Until now, Netanyahu has resisted moves on the right to push legislation to annex territory in the West Bank, but upon returning to Israel after seeing Trump, Netanyahu declared: “Everyone says you can’t hold an occupied territory, but this proves you can. If occupied in a defensive war, then it’s ours."
Will Netanyahu, if reelected, push for annexation in the West Bank? Time will tell. At this point, it is difficult to predict the outcome of the vote, scheduled for April 9. There is, however, only one scenario in which Netanyahu is likely to remain prime minister and that is as the head of a very narrow right-wing government.
Benny Gantz and the other leaders of the Blue and White party have already declared they will not join a government if Netanyahu heads it, because the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, has declared his intent to indict Netanyahu.
For the likely right-wing participants in such a narrow government, and that now includes the successor to Meir Kahane’s avowedly racist party, there are no such qualms. Their ideology counts far more than Mandelblit’s likely prosecution; in fact, they know it increases their leverage on Netanyahu because, if he fails to satisfy them on their policy demands, they can bring down the government and leave him facing the attorney general — no longer as prime minister.
As such, a Netanyahu-led government with a very slim majority will spell trouble for a Trump peace plan, even in Israel. Ironically, the administration, which gave Netanyahu a political boost with the Golan declaration, seems to have been acting on an assumption: that Netanyahu would win, form a broad-based government and, thus, be able to say “yes” to their plan. If Netanyahu were not facing the prospect of indictment, that might well have been the most likely outcome of the election. But the looming indictment and the coming together of the Blue and White party, with three ex-military chiefs of staff as its leaders along with former minister Yair Lapid, has altered the election calculus.
Although the election math may now be uncertain, what is not uncertain is that Netanyahu’s only pathway to remaining prime minister depends on leading a narrow right-wing government. And, in such a government, Netanyahu is unlikely to be able to forestall the legislation already being pushed by those on the right to annex parts of the West Bank.
Any annexations in the West Bank would doom the Trump plan not only with the Palestinians — who are already poised to reject it — but with Arab leaders, as well. They cannot put themselves in a position of acquiescing in the surrender of what they (and their constituency) perceive to be Palestinian territory by unilateral Israeli steps.
Far beyond the implications for the Trump plan, Israeli annexations planned by the right are designed not to be part of designated blocs consistent with a two-state outcome. On the contrary, once begun, these annexations would gradually be applied to more of the West Bank, making Israeli separation from Palestinians increasingly difficult. True, a two-state outcome is not possible any time soon, but separation can at least preserve it as a possibility for the future.
But a right-wing government allowed to pursue its agenda will end that possibility by combining annexation with accelerated building outside the settlement blocs — a mix that would make it impossible to separate Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. When that happens, the only option will be one state for two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinians are sure to make “one person, one vote” their mantra, and sooner or later, that will resonate here and elsewhere.
Perhaps the Trump administration does not think in these terms. But if it wants its plan to have any chance, it needs to announce soon that, regardless of the outcome of the Israeli election, it will oppose unilateral Israeli steps to annex territory in the West Bank. Only this would enable Netanyahu to stand up to the right and say we cannot afford to alienate the Trump administration given all it has done for us.
Trump has done a lot for Israel — it is time he does something to preserve Israel’s future as a Jewish democratic state.