The White House demand that Netanyahu wait until after the March 2nd Israeli election, has placed him in the position of choosing between Washington and his right-wing voters.
On Tuesday night in Beit Shemesh, at Netanyahu’s first campaign rally since he returned from Washington, he found a thin argument by which he hoped to sway right-wing voters to cast their ballot for him on March 2.
Last month, Netanyahu promised to bring the issue of sovereignty over the West Bank settlements to a vote prior to the March 2 election. On Tuesday night he indicated he would do it only after the election.
Settlers have warned Netanyahu he could lose the election if he does not make good on the pledge to apply sovereignty to the settlements immediately. Among those who are campaigning for sovereignty now, is Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan who is a Likud power broker.
But if Netanyahu moves forward he risks alienating US President Donald Trump, just a week after the American president unveiled the most pro-Israel peace plan ever in Washington.
In that plan, the US – for the first time in its history – pledged its support for Israeli sovereignty over all the settlements and gave Israel the green light to do so, but not before next month’s election.
The question of annexation has increasingly been at the heart of Netanyahu’s re-election campaign. Initially in the first re-election cycle, it was just hinted at. But the issue which has dogged Netanyahu’s political life ever since Trump entered office in 2017 has grown in prominence as Netanyahu has struggled, for close to three election cycles, to form a right-wing bloc.
During the second re-election campaign he promised sovereignty over the settlements, starting with the Jordan Valley, but opted to wait for the latter until after the formation of a government. He did so after he was warned that it was legally problematic for an interim government to apply sovereignty.
Last month, Netanyahu threw legal caution to the wind and indicated he would take action before the election.
He even brought Yesha Council head David Elhayani, who also heads the Jordan Valley Regional Council, to a Likud rally. At that rally he spoke of annexation soon. He and Elhayani stood together and clasped their hands high, to underscore their united position on this. It followed a Twitter exchange between Netanyahu and his chief rival Blue and White Party head Benny Gantz. Netanyahu chided Gantz for speaking of Jordan Valley sovereignty only after the election, noting on Twitter, “Why wait?” and indicating that he would “test” Gantz by bringing the matter to the Knesset now.
Then, just as it appeared that he would take the matter to the cabinet and the Knesset, the process was brought to a grinding halt by a White House invitation issued to Netanyahu for the unveiling of Trump’s “Deal of the Century.” In Washington, it appeared he had received support to move forward, and then that support was rescinded.
The White House demand that Netanyahu wait placed him in the position of choosing between Washington and his right-wing voters. The choice of Washington first is never a smart move for an Israeli politician.
For better or worse, diplomatic bravado is one of the key elements by which Israelis measure leadership.
They want a prime minister who has and or can establish diplomatic ties with other heads of state, primarily with the US. But the prime minster must demonstrate an ability to do so, while at the same time not becoming the lackey of the international community.
“We voted for you in a democratic election in Israel,” Dagan said on Tuesday as he under-scored this point. “We didn’t vote at a polling station in the US for Donald Trump,” said Dagan as he sat in a protest tent the settlers had set up in Jerusalem demanding sovereignty. .
Part of Netanyahu’s campaign is that he and only he can walk this walk, standing strong on US principles, while at the same time continuing the Israeli-Trump bromance.
As a prime minister Netanyahu has a history of flying into the lions’ den, literally. There was the all famous moment when he risked US-Israeli relations and delivered a speech before the US Congress against the Iran deal, even though former US president Barack Obama was its main architect.
Netanyahu’s argument at the time was that he was willing to defy Obama to save Israel from the existential threat to the country posed by the deal.
It’s a moment that has returned again and again in Netanyahu’s speeches. But it provides a distorted vision to voters of what he might do in relationship to Trump.
At the moment Netanyahu made the speech, his relations with Obama were already strained and were unlikely to improve so he had little to lose and much to gain if he could avert the deal.
As his presidency progressed, Obama’s ties to Israel were increasingly dependent on the historic strength of the US-Israel relationship rather than the personal chemistry between the two-mismatched leaders.
It’s a situation that is entirely the opposite of the one that Netanyahu finds himself in today.
Four years into the Trump presidency, the ties between Netanyahu and the US president are strong and growing even stronger. It’s also a relationship that has grown in significance as the Iranian threat continues to grow.
The risks of alienating a US president at the height of a bromance are far greater than the risk of harming such ties, when they are at their lowest, as was the case with Obama.
Netanyahu’s choice to campaign on the strength of the Trump administration’s peace plan is not far fetched. Had such a plan been presented, at any time prior to 2017, he would have been hailed as one of the greater diplomatic heroes in the annals of Israeli leaders.
In 2009, when Netanyahu was first elected, Israel was facing plans that called for an almost complete withdrawal from Area C and the uprooting of scores of settlements.
Now Israel has 30% of the West Bank and most of Jerusalem. But as the peace process was frozen during the Obama years and every West Bank construction project brought increasingly stiff condemnations, the settler frustrations grew and with it their understanding that building was not enough.
By the time Trump came into office, right-wing voters no longer wanted support for building, but for sovereignty. Netanyahu’s failure, until this last election cycles, to support any of the sovereignty drives over the last decade; has made them question his commitment to their cause.
After 53 years of fighting over every stone in the West Bank, they now see the possibility of ending the battle all together and securing their borders.
Any move that is not sovereignty now is suspect to them. Any move that delays sovereignty makes them fear it will not happen and weakens their support for Netanyahu at a time when the Yamina Party has let it be known it does not fear a sovereignty vote now.
Netanyahu’s pushback has assured them that time is still on their side, if they wait until after the election. His counter argument to them is that Gantz has created to many impossible conditions to implement the plan, such as international support, means that there is only one possible way to see sovereignty soon. And that is to vote for him and create a right-wing government.
Sovereignty soon can be sovereignty now, he argued Tuesday.
It’s an argument that he is likely to continue to master as the days wind down to March 2. Netanyahu was one of the last of the right-wing politicians to get on the annexation bandwagon. But now he is betting that once the smoke settles from the flash of fire inspired by his annexation now promise, voters will understand that annexation soon will happen only if he is re-elected.