The announcement that Israel and the UAE would exchange ambassadors and forge tourism, business and security ties has won overwhelming support among Israelis. But as Israeli officials prepared to travel to the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, to negotiate details of the new relationship, it has become clear that the future of West Bank annexation — now halted under the deal — remains unresolved and much disputed, threatening to sow tensions within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political base.
The agreement revealed Thursday stipulates that Israel will “suspend” annexation as a prerequisite to gaining full diplomatic relations with the UAE.
In announcing the deal, Trump said the annexation plan is “off the table.” UAE officials have made clear that they view the freeze as permanent and that ending Israel’s expansionist plans was a key incentive for the agreement.
But Netanyahu insisted in a rare blitz of interviews and in a video released Sunday that “sovereignty,” as Israelis refer to annexation, “has not been removed from the agenda.”
“I am the one who brought the idea to the Trump plan and American consensus,” he said later on Army Radio. “We will apply sovereignty with American consent.”
Among some in the settlements, these assurances rang hollow.
“We can say goodbye to sovereignty and bury it in the ground,” said David Elhayani, head of Yesha, an umbrella group of more than 100 settlements. “I don’t believe him.”
Elhayani, a staunch supporter of annexation, had already soured on the prime minister earlier this year after learning that annexation of up to a third of the West Bank would also open the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state on the rest of the disputed territory.
But Oded Revivi, mayor of Efrat, a suburban settlement outside of Jerusalem, said he expects the proposal to revive. He noted that annexation remains an official provision of the Trump plan and said that hundreds of settlements in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem will eventually have to be woven into the legal fabric of the country.
“Sooner or later, it will come back,” Revivi said. Pausing annexation was a reasonable price for having normal relations with the UAE, he said. But he added, “What is meant by ‘short term,’ ‘long term,’ ‘temporary,’ all of these things are very flexible.”
Should Netanyahu seek to revive the annexation plan, he could face constraints on several fronts.
In the region, he might not only derail the fledgling ties with the UAE by reversing course but short-circuit the possibility other Persian Gulf states would follow the Emirati lead, including Bahrain and Oman. Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi spoke by phone with his counterpart in Oman on Monday. According to Ashkenazi’s office, the two discussed the need to improve their own ties in light of the UAE deal.
Netanyahu also says he would need White House permission to proceed with annexation, a condition embodied in the political agreement forming Israel’s coalition government in May.
The Trump administration has made it clear it won’t acquiesce before the November presidential election. Nor is that likely to change afterward. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has evinced little support for unilateral annexation, and if Trump wins a second term, he would be wary of jeopardizing the UAE deal, which he touts as a signature foreign policy breakthrough.
Before the UAE deal was announced, the prospects for annexation were already fading in the face of White House reluctance, international opposition and infighting within Israel’s coalition government.
Netanyahu’s partners from the Blue and White party, led by his electoral rival Benny Gantz, were equivocal in their support, saying annexation should occur in consultation with Jordanian and Israeli allies. Israeli opinion polls showed that annexation ranked far below concerns over the coronavirus pandemic and the economy.
Netanyahu, who made annexation the centerpiece of his election campaign, seemed stranded on a branch with no way down. But by agreeing to shelve annexation in return for a long-sought peace deal with the UAE, the premier traded the stalled policy initiative for a foreign policy triumph.
The surprise announcement of the deal sparked outrage among Palestinian leaders. Even though they had worked to resist annexation — enlisting international pressure against Netanyahu and forgoing security cooperation with Israeli in protest — they declared the UAE’s action a betrayal because it did not force any territorial concessions from Israel.
“This is just face-saving for Netanyahu,” Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary General Saeb Erekat told reporters Sunday. The Emirates, he said, had shattered a united Arab front and killed the prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Netanyahu’s willingness to suspend annexation has angered some of his conservative supporters. Some settlers have called for his leadership of the Likud party to be challenged. In a tweet, Netanyahu rival Naftali Bennett, leader of the ultranationalist Yamina party, slammed the prime minister for failing to “muster the courage to apply sovereignty to even an inch of the Land of Israel.”
But Netanyahu’s overall support is in little danger. A poll by Israel’s Channel 12 found that 76.7 percent of respondents back the peace deal over annexation, while only 16.5 percent preferred annexation.
“For a minority of voters, there will be disappointment, but for a majority this strengthens his image, even among the settlers,” said Asher Fredman, a former adviser to a Likud minister and a fellow at the conservative Kohelet Policy Forum. “They see him as an amazing statesman.”
The long-term risk to Netanyahu, some analysts say, is a fear among many right-wing voters that he is willing to bargain away basic principles, such as the belief that Israel has a historical right to sovereignty over the West Bank, in return for political gain.
“I think for a lot of Israelis, even on the right, while there is tremendous appreciation of the historic nature of the UAE deal, it simply wasn’t the most urgent issue that needed addressing right now,” said Jason Pearlman, former adviser to several right-wing Israeli politicians.
Netanyahu, in the meantime, faces urgent challenges that won’t go away soon, including nightly protests over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the collapsing economy. The government reported a plunge in GDP of more than 28 percent in the second quarter, Israel’s biggest drop in 40 years. He is mired by a criminal trial on bribery and fraud charges.
But amid the bad news, Israelis have latched on to the prospect of a new high-end business and tourist destination a short nonstop flight away. Israeli television was awash over the weekend in dispatches from glittering malls in Dubai, the UAE’s largest city. A radio show called a tour guide in the UAE, taking advantage of new direct phone links to ask about top tourist sites.
Even Passentin, the settler who yearns for her community to be annexed as part of Israel’s claim to its “biblical heartland,” is ready to take advantage of the diplomatic deal.
“I’ve already been invited on Facebook to join a camping group in Dubai,” she said. “It looks interesting.”
She said she’s signing up.