Heading into Israel’s third election campaign in a year, Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz seems to be in an even stronger position than in his previous two tries to topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The polls show him maintaining the small lead his party has over the Likud. More importantly, the bloc of left-wing and Arab parties that are likely to support Gantz’s bid to become prime minister looks to be running even with or ahead of Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and religious parties.
But if he has any hope of breaking the stalemate that has left Israel without a governing coalition for more than a year, Gantz is going to have to convince more centrist voters that he can be trusted with the nation’s security. That’s why he made a campaign pledge this week designed to win over voters who have supported Netanyahu, but might shock the majority of American Jews who hold negative views of the prime minister. Rather than promising to work for a two-state solution, Gantz proposed something that the Palestinians say would make such a deal impossible: annexation of the Jordan Valley.
The Jordan Valley contains a number of Jewish settlements, as well as Palestinian villages, and makes up about 20 percent of the land area of the West Bank. Gantz had issued statements prior to the September election about the need for Israel to hold on to the region, which separates portions of the West Bank that have a large Arab population from the Jordan River and the Kingdom of Jordan on its east bank. But this week, he explicitly promised annexation of the region.
It’s true that, as Netanyahu’s supporters quickly pointed out, the former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces did include a condition that renders his promise meaningless. Gantz said that annexation of the area he called “Israel’s eastern protective wall” would remain part of the Jewish state in any future peace agreement, and that the promises made by the governments led by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert—who were prepared to give it up—were mistaken. He did temper his words, saying annexation would be carried out “in coordination with the international community” after he took the reins of power following the March 2 election.
As Gantz knows, the “international community” will never accept Israeli annexation of a single meter of the West Bank or even the reunited city of Jerusalem. Other than the administration of President Donald Trump, it’s not likely that any foreign government will be willing to coordinate such an endeavor.
That disclaimer is why the Israeli right distrusts Gantz. Likud supporters think that any government he leads would be more likely to make the same blunders that Barak and Olmert made in the course of formulating generous peace offers, including an independent state that the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected.
Gantz’s left-wing coalition allies would also prefer to believe that he is talking out of both sides of his mouth, and that his attempt to outflank Netanyahu on the right is mere electioneering.
Yet by making theses pledges, Gantz is also making a post-election deal of some sort with the anti-Zionist Arab parties even more of a stretch. They may be inclined to think that there isn’t really a shekel’s worth of difference between the former general and the current prime minister.
The back and forth between Netanyahu and Gantz about the issue demonstrates that the two are engaged in a game of “chicken,” each daring the other to move further towards annexation, from which there is no easily accessible exit ramp. The more Gantz doubles down on being tougher than Netanyahu, the harder it will be for him to create a left-wing government, as opposed to a unity coalition in which he’d partner with either the Likud (presumably without Netanyahu) or Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party.
And it’s possible that Gantz’s ploy will only further encourage the Trump administration to unveil its peace plan before the election rather than after it—a development that may well be to the prime minister’s advantage.
But there’s a more important point to be derived from the efforts of Gantz to outflank Netanyahu on the right that many American observers continue to ignore or misunderstand.
Listen to any of the Democratic candidates for president talk about the Middle East, and all you hear is promises to pressure Israel to do exactly what both Barak and Olmert tried to do: trade land for peace to create a two-state solution. The only significant difference among them is whether that pressure would be mere gentle urging or come in the form of a brutal push in which U.S. aid to the Jewish state would be withheld as part of a diplomatic quid pro quo.
The same sort of sentiments can be heard from many of those who purport to represent the interests of the American Jewish community, which is overwhelming liberal, and inclined to view Netanyahu and his ally Trump with disdain, if not outright disgust.
Gantz’s continued efforts to tilt to the right reveal how out of touch Americans are when it comes to the conflict with the Palestinians. It also shows how out of touch Jewish Americans are with the beliefs of the overwhelming majority of Israelis. Their critiques of Netanyahu and his government not only ring hollow; it’s just as likely that the only alternative to the Likud will also disappoint them since Gantz’s views on security issues are fairly similar to those of the prime minister.
If they were not so blind to the reality of Palestinian intransigence, Trump’s would-be opponents might be listening to Gantz and his talk about the Jordan Valley. If they did, they’d realize that their plans to pressure Israel are based on magical thinking about peace that sensible Israelis from left to right abandoned years ago. Sensible Americans should do the same.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.