West Bank annexation vote set to do more damage to Israel, Netanyahu

Israeli security forces are seen facing Palestinian protesters near the Huwara checkpoint, south of Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on Dec 22, 2017.
Israeli security forces are seen facing Palestinian protesters near the Huwara checkpoint, south of Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on Dec 22, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

TEL AVIV - In a provocative move just before the start of the new year, the central committee of Israel's governing party Likud backed a resolution urging legislators to annex large areas in the West Bank, making it harder for the Palestinians to create a state.

Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis even declared that "two states for two peoples is a concept that has disappeared from the world."

The areas, which Israel wrestled from Jordan during the Six-Day War in 1967, are considered by the world community as occupied territory, destined to become part of a future Palestinian state in the context of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Although the resolution by Likud is non-binding, it will inevitably do further damage to the international standing of Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On one hand, the resolution reflects the elation among those supporting the Israeli settlement enterprise, after the drastic change of course in US foreign policy in December. With United States President Donald Trump overturning a decades-old policy - and enraging Arabs and Muslims all over the world - by recognising Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, the supporters see this as a rare opportunity and strive to push for concrete changes on the ground.

Mr Benny Kashriel, mayor of Ma'aleh Adumim, one of the largest Israeli cities in the West Bank, called upon the party's delegates to convert the declaration into a sovereignty Bill in the Knesset while Mr Trump is in office.

"If we don't do it now, when will we be able to?" he implored.

Mr Gilad Erdan, Minister for Interior Security and the second most powerful man in the Likud after Mr Netanyahu, also spoke of the "unique opportunity" that Mr Trump's tenure offers to Israel.

"We are telling the world that it doesn't matter what the nations of the world say," he declared.

Israel has "an ethical right and a moral obligation to give equal rights to the half million Israelis living legally in Judea and Samaria," he said.

Not even in passing did he mention the rights of 2.6 million Palestinians living in the same swath of land.

Israel's opposition, on the other hand, fears the resolution could do serious harm. Although the Likud contended that it intends to annex only those areas in the West Bank where Jews live, opposition leader Yizchak Herzog warned of looming "diplomatic predicaments" and "demographic dangers" should Israel's move include the Arab inhabitants.

"Netanyahu was too scared to come to his party and tell them the truth," Mr Herzog said. "That is the difference between a leader and a politician."

He said Mr Netanyahu was willing - for his own personal benefit - to let Israel pay a high price for a resolution that would change little on the ground, but could wreak havoc in the international arena.

The Israeli Prime Minister, who has repeatedly professed his support for a two-state solution, is keeping surprisingly mum on the contentious topic.

While the resolution is not binding, Mr Netanyahu could have easily stopped it, as he had blocked several similar attempts in the past.

In letting the contentious vote take place, he was most probably hoping to improve his standing at home.

Police investigations in two cases of alleged corruption against him have led to even some of his supporters questioning his ability to lead the country. The police are expected to make recommendations to indict him in both cases.

Ahead of the possible indictments,Mr Netanyahu has begun to pander to his electoral base on the political right, seeking to close the ranks behind him. Lately, he has eased the restraints on settlement construction, come out in favour of the death penalty for terrorists, and agreed to hand more control of the affairs of secular Israeli citizens to ultra-orthodox coalition partners.

At the same time, he tries not to alienate his international allies too much. For this reason, he has refrained from taking part in the party's vote on the resolution, or commenting on it.

Despite this manoeuvring and the resolution's mere symbolic value, the credibility of Mr Netanyahu's pledges for peace, and the standing of his country, are bound to take a beating on the international stage.