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Opinion Trump now has the power to forever alter Israel’s character

President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leave the White House East Room on Jan. 28 after announcing an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

It went almost unnoticed in Washington, but last week Israel’s political leaders decided to hand President Trump the power to destroy the prospect of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all.

After three inconclusive Israeli elections, long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief opponent, Benny Gantz, finally agreed last Monday to form a government together, citing the urgent need to face the covid-19 pandemic. The deal stipulates that the coalition will focus exclusively on fighting the coronavirus for its first six months. But there is one huge exception: Starting July 1, Netanyahu, who will remain prime minister, will be allowed to seek a vote by his cabinet or the parliament on Israel’s annexation of more than 30 percent of the West Bank, where the majority of the would-be Palestinian state’s population lives.

There’s only one condition: Netanyahu must act in “full agreement with the United States.” In other words, Trump will have the power to decide whether his Israeli ally can proceed with a vote he would very likely win and that would forever alter Israel’s character.

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That provision was a huge victory for Netanyahu, who promised before the last election in March that he would pursue the annexation of all 128 Israeli settlements in the West Bank, along with the Jordan Valley along the border with Jordan. In theory, the land grab is legitimized by the Middle East “peace plan” Trump released in January, which calls for the creation of a weak Palestinian state on the chopped-up remains of the territory.

In practice, if Israeli annexation goes forward without Palestinian or Arab agreement, it will not only kill Trump’s plan; it will make a two-state settlement impossible. If there is no Palestine, Israel will be doomed to become a binational state rather than a Jewish one, or else adopt an apartheid system in which millions of Palestinians are ruled by Israel but lack full political rights.

This is not the view of the hard-line activists who campaign for BDS — the boycott, divestment and sanction movement. It is the judgment of some of the most pro-Israel members of Congress and policy experts in Washington.

Typical was a statement last week by the centrist Israel Policy Forum, which welcomed the new government but urged it to heed “warnings against unilateral annexation that have come from Israeli security experts, the United States Congress, the European Union, foreign policy experts, and American Jewish leaders.”

Netanyahu isn’t listening. According to David Makovsky, a former State Department analyst now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Netanyahu perceives a “historic opportunity to fulfill long-term territorial goals.” It’s probably for that reason that he agreed to the new government; it’s certainly the cause of his insistence on the July 1 date, which, Makovsky points out, hedges against the risk that Trump will lose the presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden, who would certainly oppose annexation.

So will Trump deliver the green light Netanyahu needs? There’s plenty of reason to suppose that he will. Trump has already granted the Israeli leader a string of unprecedented concessions, including recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, without regard for the geopolitical consequences.

Trump’s motivation is transparent: In this election year, he wishes to galvanize the evangelical Christians and minority of U.S. Jews who support a “greater Israel,” while casting Democrats who disagree as anti-Zionist. The long-term impact on Israel, or Israel’s relations with the United States, doesn’t interest him.

And yet: Gantz may have had some cause in insisting that Netanyahu agree to obtain the United States’ “full agreement.” Netanyahu was about to proceed with the settlements’ annexation in early February when he was blocked by Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner, a prime author of the peace plan. The White House said annexation must await U.S.-Israeli agreement on a map of the exact boundaries of the seizure.

Kushner is no doubt aware that unilateral annexation will tank the plan on which he labored for the better part of three years. And Trump will likely be hearing in the coming weeks from key Arab allies — Jordan, Egypt and perhaps Saudi Arabia — who will tell him the action will doom the alliance between Israel and Arab states that Trump hopes to foster.

A lot of Middle East hands are hoping that Trump will limit Netanyahu to a partial action — say, the annexation of only those West Bank settlements near Israel’s border. They might be encouraged by the Delphic statement delivered Wednesday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said annexation was “an Israeli decision,” but added, “we’ll work closely with them to share our views of this in a private setting.”

The public Trump will surely pose as Israel’s champion. The question is whether, in private, he will make an effort to save the Jewish state from Netanyahu’s reckless bid for a territorial legacy.

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Read a letter in response to this piece: What Israel should do now

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Gershom Gorenberg: Benny Gantz just sold out Israel’s perilously ill democracy

Henry Olsen: Trump has turned the Israel-Palestinian peace process into a real estate deal

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Ami Ayalon: The occupation is tearing Israel apart. We need the United States’ help to end it.