I am going to extend sovereignty, and I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated settlements. … From my perspective, any point of settlement is Israeli, and we have responsibility, as the Israeli government. I will not uproot anyone, and I will not transfer sovereignty to the Palestinians. — Benjamin Netanyahu, Channel 12, April 6, 2019
In a significant departure from his usual ambivalent and non-committal policy formulation regarding the final status of the territories of Judea-Samaria (aka “West Bank”), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came out with an unexpectedly robust and unequivocal statement of intent just a few days prior to the April 9 elections.
Channel 12 interviewer Rina Matzliah fired an almost taunting question at Netanyahu, asking him why—given the fact that he had a largely compliant government domestically, and a firmly supportive administration in Washington—he had not done more to extend Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria. In response, the prime minister announced that was precisely what he intended to do if re-elected.
Two states increasingly unfeasible
While the election results gave an unambiguous victory to Netanyahu and the “right-wing” bloc, it is still anyone’s guess as to how sincere he was in his statement of intention and how serious he will be about implementing such a policy in practice.
Be that as it may, even at this early stage, several issues are already clear.
The prospect of any measure entailing the transfer of large tracts of Judea-Samaria to Palestinian-Arab control is becoming increasingly unfeasible. Indeed, as Netanyahu pointed out in his interview, the likely outcome of such an initiative would be the creation of a mega-Gaza—20 times the scale of what has developed to the south.
Accordingly, there appears to be growing awareness of the dangers entailed in any such policy, especially over time.
After all, even if some “genuine Palestinian-Arab peace partner” could be identified as having sufficient pliancy to accommodate Israel’s minimal security concerns and sufficient authority to enforce an agreement acceptable to Israel on a recalcitrant public, there is no guarantee that his hold on power could be assured for long. Clearly, once Israel relinquishes control over territory, it cannot determine who will seize the reins of power—as the 2007 Islamist take-over of Gaza starkly underscores. Or a pliant peace partner could be replaced—by the ballot or the bullet, by a more inimical successor—precisely because of the “perfidious” deal cut with the infidel “Zionist entity.”
Lethargic support for sovereignty in new coalition?
But the election results also embody another message for the advocates of Jewish sovereignty. For they underscore just how tenuous relying on elected politicians to promote and implement any initiative for the extension of Jewish sovereignty across the 1967 Green Line can be.
For despite an ostensibly robust showing by the “right,” when one examines the composition of the emerging coalition, the only strong advocate for extending sovereignty is the “United Right,” an amalgam of three factions widely considered to be “ultra-right” religious Zionist parties with four parliamentary seats. At the time of submitting this piece, neither the New Right (advocating extending Israeli sovereignty to Area C), nor Zehut (advocating Israeli sovereignty over all of Judea-Samaria) passed the minimal thresholds for election to the Knesset. So whatever the overall reason was for their poor performance, both these parties clearly failed utterly in rallying widespread popular support for the idea of extended sovereignty, whether partial or otherwise.
Moreover, none of the other prospective coalition partners can be said to be avid advocates of sovereignty, whether the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah; the Kulanu faction, headed by former Finance Minister, Moshe Kahlon; or even Yisrael Beiteinu headed by former Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who despite his bellicose rhetoric towards both the Palestinian and Israeli-Arabs has, in fact, expressed support for the two-state principle .
Accordingly, if the call for extending Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria is not to be seen as a concept that is embraced almost exclusively by the religious right, strenuous efforts must be made to advance its legitimacy in the non-observant quarters of Israeli society.
For if this is not accomplished, it is likely to be dismissed as no more than a tenet of a radical religious credo, with little chance of it being adopted as a legitimate political objective by wider circles with the Israeli polity or society at large beyond the ranks of the religious Zionist sector.
This is a consideration of utmost importance for sovereignty advocates. For given Netanyahu’s hitherto reticence in advancing the principle, it is not implausible to surmise that unless considerable pressure is exerted on him, he may, despite his impressive electoral success, be loath to advance the issue of extended sovereignty with sufficient vigor to take full advantage of the clement climes in Washington, which cannot be counted on indefinitely.
The need to generate greater public support
There are three potential sources of pressure on Netanyahu.
The first is from within the Likud itself—where a good number of Knesset members and ministers support extending sovereignty to some degree or other. However, given Netanyahu’s intra-party dominance, it is unlikely that pressures from within the Likud will be sufficient to compel him to undertake far-reaching initiatives, which he is reluctant to adopt.
The second is from his coalition partners, but as pointed out previously, apart from the United Right with only 4 seats, sovereignty has not been a central issue for the remainder of the coalition members, who are unlikely to make this a cardinal condition for their continued support of Netanyahu, should he balk at honoring his pledge.
The third—and most important, but sadly, the most neglected—source of pressure is from the public. It is here that “right-wing” benefactors in general and sovereignty supporters in particular have been especially remiss.
Whoever controls the political discourse controls the political decision-makers’ perception of the possible alternatives open to them, as well as the unavoidable constraints confronting them. Accordingly, by controlling these perceptions, whoever controls the political discourse controls the political decision-making process.
Learning the lessons of Oslo
Indeed, the “right-wing” can learn much from the modus operandi of the “left.”
After all, at the beginning of the 1990s, advancing the notion of Palestinian statehood was considered borderline sedition. Contacts with Yasser Arafat’s PLO were an offense punishable (and punished) by imprisonment. Yet undeterred, the left persisted, and because it was resolute in its aim, resourceful in its pursuit and successful in raising resources, it managed to convert an idea that was not only marginal and marginalized, not only illegitimate but illegal, into the principle political paradigm that dominated the discourse for decades.
In this regard, it is important to recall that the Oslo Accords, which essentially catapulted the pursuit of Palestinian statehood from being an act of treason to the internationally acclaimed centerpiece of Israeli foreign policy, were not born in the political system or created by incumbent politicians. They were born in Israel’s civil society and created by unelected civil-society elites, who then imposed their agenda on the often-reluctant elected incumbents.
There is an important lesson here for the advocates of extended sovereignty.
The key to implementing Netanyahu’s pledge to extend Israeli sovereignty to Judea and Samaria may not lie in direct efforts to persuade elected politicians to embrace it, but by investing resources in dominating the public discourse so as to mold decision-makers’ perceptions of what can be done and what must be avoided.
This then, should be the most urgent post-election priority for sovereignty advocates and their benefactors, especially in light of the looming specter of the Trump “deal of the century,” rumored to include demands for significant Israeli concessions.
Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.
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