But the frame shifted again on Saturday night, when Netanyahu declared that, if reelected, he would pursue annexation in the West Bank.
What happens next if Netanyahu retains power will depend to no small degree on President Trump.
For Netanyahu — Israel’s premier over the entire past decade — the strategy to victory this year couldn’t have been clearer: contrasting his record of achievement to the relative inexperience of his competitors and promising his supporters to deliver more rewards in the future. U.S. recognition of Israeli dominion on the Golan Heights, the announcement that Brazil will be opening a trade office in Jerusalem, and Russia’s retrieval of the body of an Israeli serviceman missing for 37 years — all within the past two weeks — underscored Netanyahu’s status as Israel’s pre-eminent statesman.
His pledge to make Israel’s rule over the West Bank official and permanent comes now as a complement to lay the foundations for his encore in power.
Annexation is the holy grail for large segments of the Israeli right — Netanyahu's preferred coalition partners — with over 40 percent of all Israelis actually favoring a full or partial incorporation of the West Bank into Israel. Dangling the prospect of such a move, which the prime minister began doing after his visit to the White House in March, is a quintessential act of pandering to his base.
But it’s not clear that Netanyahu actually wants to go through with it.
Netanyahu is perceived widely as a creature of the far right, bent on furthering the agenda of Israel’s settlement movement. His rhetoric sustains that impression unquestionably, but the reality is more complex. In fact, Netanyahu has proved consistently — and counterintuitively — to be a risk-averse proponent of the status quo.
The more hawkish flank of Netanyahu’s ideological camp has criticized him bitterly for implementing what they see as the policies of his left-wing opponents. He’s come under fire for decisions like approving the transfer of funds to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, delaying the court-ordered demolition of a controversial Bedouin encampment and not charging ahead with Israeli construction in strategic areas of the West Bank. Netanyahu’s right-wing frenemies are consumed with fear that he could even “capitulate” to Trump, embracing an as-yet-unreleased peace blueprint that would entail concessions that they find unacceptable.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has demonstrated marked restraint in responding to rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel’s heartland — much to the chagrin of the majority of Israelis who believe that the IDF should have responded more rigorously. He’s also exercised caution in managing the country’s expanding relationships within the Arab world, moving forward at a measured pace; resisting the impulse to upgrade ties, Netanyahu has avoided taking the assumed prerequisite step to bringing this largely clandestine cooperation into the daylight — i.e., opening the Pandora’s box of negotiations with the Palestinians — and given priority to keeping his government intact.
That's why the U.S. role is pivotal to what happens next. As a robust democracy, Israel has no lack of independent agency. But when it comes to major changes in policy, Israeli leaders have always checked to see which way the winds were blowing in Washington.
In 2003, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began contemplating seriously the idea of disengaging Israel from the Gaza Strip, it was the United States to which he turned for feedback. Revealing his initial thoughts to Elliott Abrams, then special assistant to President George W. Bush, during a below-the-radar meeting in Rome, Sharon laid the groundwork for an eventual exchange of letters in which the president deemed it “unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” America’s commitments provided Sharon the cover he required to proceed with his bold plans.
Today, the United States stands once again as the enabler — or not — of Israel’s territorial designs.
The roots of today’s annexation discourse extend far back beyond the advent of the Trump presidency: Security and religious arguments advocating for Israel’s retention of all or parts of biblical Judea and Samaria date to the immediate aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel captured the territory in question.
But Trump’s proclamation that “the Golan Heights are part of the State of Israel” makes Netanyahu’s commitment Saturday seem like something he might credibly follow through on if he wins on Tuesday. Having already bestowed his blessing on Israel’s jurisdiction over Jerusalem and the Golan, Trump now gives Israelis genuine cause to believe that the West Bank may be in play as never before.
Netanyahu's latest statements notwithstanding, he has been unenthusiastic about the idea of annexing the West Bank until now, maneuvering instead to keep ahead of the political curve. Last year, the White House disclosed that Netanyahu — contrary to what he told a meeting of his Likud Party caucus — had not even bothered to raise such an initiative with the Trump administration. Presumably, Netanyahu realizes the level of international censure and explosive ramifications for Israel that would almost certainly follow in the wake of annexation.
In the 11th hour of a tough fight to stay in office, Netanyahu offered up annexation — something he’s refrained from executing in four previous terms as prime minister — in the hope of energizing right-wing Israelis to back his candidacy. That doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. Reluctant to pay the price of disappointing his domestic political allies, Netanyahu will be dependent on the broad shoulders of the United States as his last line of defense, looking to invoke American displeasure as the reason he can’t deliver on his promise.
The onus, by default, will thus fall on Trump.
If the president comes out forcefully against annexation, Netanyahu can report unhesitatingly to Israelis that his hands are tied. But if Trump appears to consent to Israel annexing the West Bank — a break with decades of U.S. policy — that would force Netanyahu to choose between feeding his coalition’s appetite or risking the survival of his government. (Facing potential indictment, he’ll probably be predisposed toward the former.)
Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition this past weekend, Trump said that he “would love to see peace in the Middle East.” That might be something he wants to consider deeply before weighing in on Israel’s brewing annexation debate.