How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Israel could soon begin the process of annexing some of the West Bank. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge to unilaterally apply Israeli law to portions of the territory—virtually guaranteeing their the permanent retention by Israel—looms alongside an even larger elephant in the room: Netanyahu is well on his way to ensuring that a real Palestinian state based on June 1967 borders with a capital in East Jerusalem goes the way of the dodo. Regardless of what happens with annexation, that will be his legacy—and it will likely be an irreversible one.
Leaders inside and outside the Middle East are now practically begging Netanyahu to show restraint. In recent weeks, the debate in Israel has shifted from whether to annex to how much to annex, underscoring the extent to which the game is being played on his terms. The Israeli prime minister faces trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust; a challenge from unruly right-wing coalition partners; a resurgence of COVID-19; an economic recession; and the perpetual problem of Iran. But if staying in power and permanently closing the door on the creation of a real Palestinian state are his immediate goals, he is winning, with a good deal of wind at his back.
Someday, Netanyahu will run out of magic, but for now, his reputation as a political magician is well deserved. Unable to secure a majority after three elections in the span of a single year, he cut a coalition deal with rival Benny Gantz that not only rehabilitated Netanyahu and his Likud Party (the only coherent political movement in Israel today) but forced Gantz to destroy his inchoate center-left coalition. If and when the agreed-upon rotation of the premiership to Gantz ever occurs (he is due to take over in November 2021), Netanyahu will retain a majority in the Knesset, leaving Gantz with a handful of seats and the image of a politician who has supped with the devil and betrayed his supporters to do it.
Indeed, Gantz is sounding more and more like the old right Likudnik he may well be. Last week, he seemed to support Netanyahu’s annexation plan, telling reporters that if the Palestinians say no to negotiations forever, the Israelis will move on without them. Netanyahu doesn’t have an entirely free hand when it comes to annexation. But under the terms of the coalition agreement, he will be able to move his plan forward for debate by the cabinet and the government any time on or after July 1. And annexation or no annexation, Netanyahu can count on strong popular support for keeping the Jordan Valley and the large West Bank settlement blocs under Israeli control in perpetuity. Right now there is no serious pressure on Netanyahu to concede anything—just not to take more.
Netanyahu’s best allies in his effort to extinguish Palestinian national aspirations have been the Palestinians themselves. Divided, dysfunctional, and directionless, the Palestinian national movement looks like Noah’s ark: dueling Fatah and Hamas rivals have created two versions of everything—statelets, security services, constitutions, and patrons. As for the beleaguered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he is trapped between a status quo that offers continued occupation and change that takes the unappealing form of armed struggle, dismantling the Palestinian Authority, or accepting a Trump peace plan that offers at best rump statehood. The public has grown increasingly contemptuous of Abbas’s leadership, crediting him with successfully managing the pandemic but little else. His threats to cut all ties with Israel, including security cooperation, are viewed as empty; worse still is the PA’s dependence on Israel for everything from travel permits to water, electricity, and medical treatment. An organized campaign of violence and terror is unlikely, and it would play to Hamas’s advantage. Nor does a spontaneous intifada seem imminent. Earlier this month, Fatah rallied thousands into the streets in Jericho to protest annexation. But in Ramallah, it struggled to get 200 people to turn out.
Abbas has done much to advance Netanyahu’s campaign to close the door on meaningful Palestinian statehood.
Abbas has been a dream come true for Netanyahu. Willing to cooperate with Israel on security and eschew both violence and the negotiating table, Abbas has done much to advance Netanyahu’s campaign to close the door on meaningful Palestinian statehood. He is also viewed by the Trump administration as the embodiment of everything that is wrong with the Palestinians, helping free Netanyahu from serious U.S. pressure. Not that there is much the Palestinian president could do to improve the PA’s position. Some have urged him to put out his own peace plan. But what kind of plan would that be? Abbas is stuck between capitulation and proposals that Netanyahu, Gantz, and the Israeli public will never accept—such as a return to June 1967 borders with land swaps and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.
Netanyahu’s ambitions have gotten an additional boost from the Arab states, especially in the Gulf, whose favor he has sought. Even as he continued settlement building and moved to thwart Palestinian aspirations, his government’s relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain have flourished. Visions of nonbelligerency accords—even normalization—dance around in Netanyahu’s head. And there are good reasons to believe that this détente with Arab Gulf states will endure: Saudi and UAE concern about a rising Iran; Arab frustration and exhaustion with the Palestinians; and the desire, especially in the Gulf, to maintain close ties to a Trump administration that shares Israel’s anti-Iranian views have all helped align Israeli and Arab state interests, spawning public gestures such as visits by Israeli athletes, diplomats, and business people to the Gulf as well as more discrete security and intelligence cooperation.
In recent weeks, the annexation issue has highlighted both the promise and the limitations of these new relationships. Earlier this month, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth published an unprecedented article by Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, as well as a video in which he addressed the Israeli public directly, warning of worsening ties if Israel followed through on annexation and promising upgraded ties if it held back. Soon after, Nawaf Obaid, a former Saudi political adviser with ties to the royal family, made a similar appeal in the pages of Haaretz. And days later, in a video briefing of the American Jewish Committee, Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, expressed opposition to annexation but made clear that political disagreements shouldn’t preclude cooperation with Israel on regional matters. Clearly, as Netanyahu considers whether and what to annex, he will look for ways to preserve his impressive gains with the Gulf states. And given the benefits these countries derive from their improved relationship with Israel, they may look for ways to do the same.
The Trump administration has sought nothing less than a reformulation of U.S. policy on the two-state solution, bringing it in line with Netanyahu’s desiderata
Among Netanyahu’s enablers, however, one partner stands out. Although the Trump administration has lately sent mixed signals on the issue of annexation, the U.S. president and his peace team have done much to support Netanyahu’s slow-rolling effort to kill Palestinian statehood. Over the past three years, the Trump administration has sought nothing less than a reformulation of U.S. policy on the two-state solution, bringing it in line with Netanyahu’s desiderata: a rump Palestinian state on 70 percent of the West Bank, a token capital in a suburb or two of East Jerusalem, and a set of conditions Palestinians would need to meet so onerous that Trump’s own ambassador to Israel joked they would need to become a democracy like Canada to qualify. Yes, the United States’ endorsement of Palestinian statehood gives Netanyahu heartburn with his right wing. But the long list of goodies that the Trump administration has bestowed on him—from declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel and opening the U.S. embassy there to declaring the Golan Heights sovereign Israeli territory to opening the door to annexation of the Jordan Valley and large parts of the West Bank with its peace plan—have given him an extraordinary advantage. Not only have these moves allowed Israel to steadily expand its territory; they have virtually guaranteed that the Palestinians won’t come to the negotiating table.
One might ask why Netanyahu would risk jeopardizing all of these gains in order to extend Israeli law over territories that the country already controls and that no one is pressuring it to return. Why rile up a dysfunctional Palestinian cause, anger the Arab states (and especially Jordan), risk potential headaches with the Europeans, and in the event of a new U.S. administration, start off on the wrong foot? Floating the idea of annexation before the last three elections helped Netanyahu with his base. But how does it help him now?
The answer could be in the legacy he hopes to leave behind. Applying Israeli law to much of the West Bank would mean the irreversible end of the Palestinian statehood project, making him the prime minister who not only buried the two-state solution but annexed choice West Bank real estate. In 2014, the Knesset passed a Basic Law requiring a super majority of 80 out of 120 members to pass any legislation that rolled back the territorial reach of Israeli law. In other words, it would be almost impossible for the Knesset to pass a measure ceding territory to which Israeli law had already been applied. If there was a poison pill for killing the two-state solution, the 2014 Basic Law was it.
What Netanyahu will do on or after July 1 is impossible to say. But no matter what happens in the coming days and weeks, the prospects for a two-state solution acceptable to both parties are slim to none—certainly under any foreseeable circumstances.
Netanyahu is not the lone architect of this grim situation. For almost three decades, the absence of strong leaders on both sides; the profound suspicion and mistrust between the sides; the historical traumas of colliding narratives; the extreme difficulty of the issues themselves (including Jerusalem, refugees, Israeli settlements, and Palestinian terror); the ineffectiveness of U.S. mediation; and the inertia of a status quo that was deemed much less risky than uncertain change have both defined the landscape and prevented the parties from reaching common ground. But having done his utmost to kill the two-state solution for most of the past decade, Netanyahu now waits, shovel in hand, to bury it.