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What happens next?

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Rainer Sollich
September 16, 2019

There is more at stake than whether Benjamin Netanyahu will secure himself another term. It could also decide whether a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians is still a viable option, Rainer Sollich writes.

Netanyahu presenting his annexation plans for the Jordan Valley
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/O. Balilty

Benjamin Netanyahu is in trouble. He has governed Israel since 2009, after a previous three-year stint in the 1990s, and he wants to be reelected. But things are not running smoothly for Bibi these days. To be sure, for months he has been tirelessly — and indeed successfully — warning of the threat of a hostile Iran to the security of Israel.

It gave him a boost on the domestic front, and it even helped him to establish common ground with some Arab regimes in the Gulf region. More importantly, in his staunch anti-Iran course he could clearly count on support from a superpower ally, the United States, which had already just as clearly and unequivocally backed Israel's annexation of Syria's Golan Heights as well as the one-sided definition of the whole of Jerusalem as the "undivided" capital of Israel.

Netanyahu and Trump: How united are they?

But Netanyahu's most important ally, US President Donald Trump, always has a capacity for surprise. Lately, Trump had even contemplated — with North Korea as a role model — an eye-to-eye meeting with Iran's president — although he, and Tehran, ditched the idea after the recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities. In addition, Netanyahu might be confused by the fact that two Netanyahu-friendly politicians have left the US government, namely hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton and Trump lawyer-cum-negotiator for Middle East peace, Jason Greenblatt. Furthermore, recent media reports on alleged Israeli spying activity in Washington could put an additional strain on the Trump-Netanyahu relationship.

Netanyahu's biggest problem, however, is called Netanyahu. Polls predict a neck-and-neck race with his challenger, former army chief Benny Gantz. So if things take a turn for the worse for him, Netanyahu could actually lose. And in that event, he might have to face serious personal consequences as well: The prime minister might be indicted in three corruption cases currently being investigated. Without holding office, his chances of avoiding criminal prosecution through Israel's current immunity legislation will inevitably dwindle.

Hazardous campaign pledge

It is another reason why Netanyahu has doggedly fought for reelection. It is why he is particularly tough on anti-Israel militias such as Hezbollah and Hamas. And it is why, in the event of an election victory, he has pledged an "immediate" annexation of the Jordan Valley. Currently, some 60,000 Palestinians are living in that area — as well as some 5,000 Israeli settlers.

Rainer Sollich
DW's Rainer Sollich

Many observers in Israel have interpreted the announced annexation primarily as an election campaign maneuver. Let's hope they're right — regrettably, it can't be said with any certainty. Netanyahu's motion has seen heated debate in Israel, and his key opponents would even support such a move for security policy reasons.

They doubt, however, that Netanyahu is really serious about the move, and that he could push the annexation through. As a result, Netanyahu's credibility is at stake as well. In case of his reelection, would he be forgiven for simply dropping his campaign pledge from the agenda? 

He would probably be able to implement it only with the US president's backing. Trump, however, remains tight-lipped about the issue. For months, speculation has been rife as to exactly which visions and measures the Trump government's touted but still unreleased Middle East peace plan will include. Will it be revealed as planned after the elections in Israel? And could it even explicitly propose the annexation of the Jordan Valley and Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories?

Read more: The West Bank and the Jordan Valley explained

Israeli PM pledges to annex Jordan Valley

The longterm view

Such an annexation, however, would be extremely dangerous. Due to Israeli settlement construction, Palestinian infighting, reciprocal skirmishes and the lack of determination on all sides, a two-state solution seems less and less realistic anyway. Further annexations would mean that a viable Palestinian state is dead in the water. The result could be even more violence.

In the longer term, this could also lead to an additional problem for Israel: The greater the number of Palestinians residing on Israeli state territory, the more difficult it will be, in the long run, to maintain the nature of a state that is both Jewish and democratic. And if Israel continues to withhold rights from Palestinians that Israeli citizens enjoy as a matter of course, the populist accusation of Israel being an "apartheid state" will become ever more common. The rapprochement to various Arab states which is currently being prepared behind the scenes would suffer setbacks. And yet, equating Israel with South Africa at least lacks historic precision. The term "apartheid state" is rather used as a battle cry by those who wish to discredit Israel as a whole. Actually, it would run contrary to Israel's security interests if that battle cry saw a resurgence in the wake of the election.

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