The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israel’s West Bank annexation stalls, for now, amid pandemic and political distractions

A mask-clad Jewish woman prays while Israeli settlers gather near the Palestinian town of Halhul to protest President Trump’s peace plan. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — After months of buildup, Israelis and Palestinians had come to think of July 1 as “annexation day,” when Israel would proceed with its plan to formally absorb Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank into Israel proper.

But more than two weeks later, with both Israel and its key backer, the Trump administration, preoccupied by spiking coronavirus infections, no plan has emerged, leaving some here to wonder whether annexation day will ever come.

The two governments have not met publicly on the proposal since July 1, when the Trump administration’s special representative, Avi Berkowitz, flew back to Washington with no agreement on the scope or timing of annexation.

President Trump’s Middle East plan envisions Israel annexing territory amounting to almost a third of the West Bank as well as the adjacent Jordan Valley. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged not to proceed without approval from the White House.

Now, some Israeli settlers fear the window may be closing as talks with the United States appear to have stalled amid reports of divisions within the administration and mounting health and political crises in both countries. Some settlers are increasingly angry that Netanyahu hasn’t acted on his own.

“I’m pessimistic,” said David Elhayani, a farmer and head of the Yesha Council, an umbrella group of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. “There is the corona; there is the election in the United States. But a real leader, when he sees a historic opportunity, he takes it. I demand of my prime minister that he be a real leader.”

Under an agreement between political leaders in the parliament, or Knesset, July 1 had been set as the earliest an annexation plan could be presented for government approval. That date has come and gone without a decision from Netanyahu, and the issue has largely been pushed from Israeli headlines by a burgeoning second wave of coronavirus infections.

Yariv Levin, speaker of the parliament and a close Netanyahu ally, has told associates that Trump officials were currently “in no mood” to address annexation, according to a report Tuesday by Israel’s Army Radio. Levin’s office declined to comment.

An official of Netanyahu’s Likud party with knowledge of communications between Israeli and U.S. officials said the prime minister had no plans to go back on his promise that he would move ahead with annexation only with White House approval.

“We are still waiting to hear what the Americans’ official position on annexation is,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “If it is going to happen, when it is going to happen, how is it going to happen? Berkowitz left two weeks ago. We told him what we would like, and now we’re waiting.”

Palestinians, meanwhile, are not letting up on their efforts to drum up international opposition to the plan even as they confront their own resurgence of coronavirus infections.

The Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, has continued to withhold cooperation with Israel on security and civil affairs. And in a rare show of cooperation, leaders from the authority and Hamas, the militant group that governs the Gaza Strip, have appeared together at video news conferences to jointly condemn the annexation proposal.

The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem did not comment on the status of talks between the two governments or the ongoing process of mapping the areas that might be annexed. “We continue to consult closely with the government of Israel on this matter, as well as on a wide range of other issues,” said an embassy official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

There is no question that other priorities are dominating in Israel, where officials have closed wedding venues and limited restaurant seating for a second time as the country’s earlier success controlling the epidemic in the spring has been wiped away by new cases. Almost 1,800 new infections were reported Thursday, with the number of seriously ill doubling in a week.

Netanyahu, who saw his popularity soar as he took decisive action during the early weeks of the pandemic, has watched it plummet amid criticism that his government let infections surge by opening schools too quickly and failing to enforce mask requirements.

With nearly a million Israelis out of work, near-nightly protests outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem have swelled in size and intensity. More than 50 demonstrators were detained Tuesday after a protest by more than 1,000 Israelis grew unruly.

“Annexation was never a high priority for most of the Israeli public and now sounds even more off-key as the covid and economic crises escalate,” said former U.S. ambassador Dan Shapiro, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “It’s off the table for now, but it could return.”

Many settlers, though, see any delay as endangering the prospect of annexation. They are watching Trump’s dropping poll numbers, aware that Joe Biden, the likely Democratic nominee for president, has already condemned the idea.

“As the political arena is becoming more and more of a mess, time is running out,” said Oded Revivi, the mayor of Efrat, a settlement south of Jerusalem.

Revivi, who has met with Netanyahu multiple times on the issues, thinks an agreement could come suddenly as the prime minister and Trump look for an advantage in their ever-shifting political landscapes. Revivi said a senior military leader told him this week that the army was planning for various annexation scenarios and the possibility of a violent Palestinian reaction.

“They understand that it could happen at any time without a lot of advance warning,” he said.

Elhayani, the Yesha chairman, traveled to Washington with Netanyahu for the January rollout of the Trump plan but strongly rejects its call for annexation to be accompanied by steps toward the creation of a Palestinian state on remaining West Bank land.

He cited reports that the White House was divided on the issue, with U.S. Ambassador David Friedman pushing for annexation and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, holding out for more Israeli commitments to a Palestinian state.

“We don’t need the Trump plan,” Elhayani said. “I told the prime minister, bring [annexation] to the Knesset without the Trump plan and do it this week. It is painful to see the possibility being washed away.”