Yesterday, Netanyahu made one of his specialty pre-election statements. In an interview with Channel 12 News he said that in his next term he would advance Israeli sovereignty in the legal West Bank settlements and in the stretch of land next to the Jordanian border. Many are reading this as a dangerous ploy- they are saying that Netanyahu has converted to a pro-annexation platform and that this statement portends to concrete efforts to incorporate much of the West Bank into Israel proper in his next term.
Given this reading, many on the left and center are more strongly pushing for Netanyahu’s downfall- either by indictment, international push-back or other internal political means.
But, what this analysis misses is the fact that Netanyahu’s statement actually is a political gambit that will halt annexation moves in the short term. The current polling in the Knesset shows that three parties who are pushing for West Bank annexation, of various forms, will likely receive close to 17-19 seats. In this same polling Netanyahu’s likely right wing coalition, which will include these three parties, will likely receive 65-66 Knesset seats. This means that if conditions remain the same, close to 1/3 of the next coalition will have a pro-annexation platform.
Netanyahu, for all his faults, is a pragmatist. He likely believes that asserting Israeli sovereignty over large swaths of the West Bank would be a disaster. But, if Netanyahu has a coalition that depends on the support of these pro-annexation parties, he’ll be manipulated towards pursuing those goals.
Netanyahu’s statement should be read as a ploy to move seats away from these pro-annexation parties towards the Likud. His annexation statement is much more moderate than the positions advocated by the pro-annexation parties. He’s calling for sovereignty over already-settled parts of the West Bank. Netanyahu doesn’t seem to be pushing for the annexation of Area C or over PA-controlled territory. But, his statement is being read as a pro-annexation revelation and therefore, Netanyahu hopes, this will put more seats under his control.
Ironically, if either this pre-election ploy fails or Netanyahu’s rule comes to an end, then real annexation becomes much more likely. Naftali Bennett, the head of the New Right party, is trying to position himself after this election as a possible Netanyahu successor. Bennett’s party is one of the three advocating for annexing large portions of the West Bank. Additionally, polling of the Likud has indicated that many of its rank-and-file members want West Bank annexation to be added to the party platform. Likud rivals to Netanyahu, Yuli Edelstein among them, have tried to play on this general desire to elevate their position in the party’s pecking order. So, in some ways, Netanyahu is one of the largest bulwarks against the Israeli right wing incorporating large-scale annexation as official policy.