As I wrestled to understand why Netanyahu seems so determined to press ahead with annexation of the West Bank territories allotted to Israel in the Trump plan, I began to think again about that conversation. Netanyahu is a no-holds-barred Israeli politician, yet throughout his tenure as prime minister he has been risk-averse when it comes national security.
But as Jordan’s King Abdullah declares that annexation will trigger a “massive conflict,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says all agreements with Israel will end, Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign minister, threatens consequences if Israel goes ahead, and Joe Biden, who might be the U.S. president next January, expresses his opposition, Netanyahu seems determined to carry out the move, beginning on July 1.
Ben-Gurion — against expected U.S. opposition and the certainty of invasion by Arab states — declared Israel a state. He knew the cost would be high, but he believed if he did not declare statehood as the British presence and mandate ended, there might never again be the pretext and justification to do so. Yes, Israel paid a terrible price, losing 6,000 lives, almost 1 percent of its population, in its war of independence. But for Ben-Gurion, who was determined to end 2,000 years of Jewish homelessness, the cost of inaction was greater.
Netanyahu now sees his unique Ben-Gurion moment. He believes that the Trump administration permits him to set Israel’s borders to the east, keeping areas he regards as critical to Israeli security, and to create a new baseline for any negotiations that might take place in the future with the Palestinians. The baseline would no longer be the June 4, 1967, lines but the Trump plan: up to 70 percent of the West Bank rather than 100 percent.
Much like Ben-Gurion in 1948, he sees a historic opportunity. But unlike Ben-Gurion, who knew the costs would be great, Netanyahu sees little risk. There were Cassandra-like warnings about violence erupting if Trump moved the U.S. Embassy and recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; there were warnings about U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan; and there were warnings about the Trump peace plan — but nothing materialized in any of these cases.
In Netanyahu’s eyes, Abbas’s threats to end all cooperation and turn the Palestinian Authority to Israel are not new and ring hollow — after all, security cooperation with Israel protects Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership from Hamas and others, and Abbas et al won’t let the PA collapse because it means losing all they have.
Jordan, on the other hand, depends on American financial assistance more than ever and cannot afford to jeopardize it; other Arab leaders care more about preserving Israel’s quiet help against Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood than the Palestinians; and the European Union acts on the basis of consensus, with Hungary almost guaranteed to block any sanctions.
But I suspect Netanyahu is wrong about both the gains and the risks.
First, if Biden wins and reverses recognition of the annexation and repudiates the Trump plan, there will be no new baseline, especially with no one internationally accepting the Israeli action. Second, Netanyahu ignores that the limited responses to Trump’s decisions on Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and his peace plan were all about American moves, not Israel’s. Now it will be Israel acting and imposing an outcome. Palestinians will feel compelled to show they will not acquiesce; Palestinian security personnel justify their role as being necessary to fulfill Palestinian national aspirations, not guarantee Israeli annexation of what is perceived to be their territory. Their behavior, and even the survival of the PA, already reeling economically, cannot be taken for granted. Chaos and violence could result.
Third, Abdullah’s options may be limited, but annexation of the Jordan Valley would force him to react and quite possibly suspend Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel.
Fourth, consensus in the E.U. may not exist to impose sanctions, but it is needed to extend existing programs in Israel. Will the E.U.'s Program for Research and Innovation, which invests heavily in Israel’s research and development sector, continue? Don’t bet on it.
There are other risks, including the possibility of a new American administration not defending Israeli annexation in the U.N. Security Council, and the International Criminal Court seizing on annexation as a more legitimate pretext for acting against Israel.
Of course Netanyahu could decide to limit the scope of annexation only to settlement bloc areas likely to be part of Israel in any realistic peace settlement, and he could declare that he is doing so to give the Palestinians a chance to negotiate before taking additional steps. That might defuse the reaction from everyone except the Palestinians. For them, a threshold will have been crossed.
In the end, Netanyahu could be right, and I could be wrong about his calculation. But there is a critical difference. If I am wrong, Israel will still control the territory and lose nothing. If Netanyahu is wrong, Israel stands to lose a great deal.