Israel’s shift on annexation sparks right-wing anger

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Israeli settlers, some mask-clad, gather on a hill next to the Palestinian town of Halhul, north of Hebron in the occupied West Bank
Israeli settlers, some mask-clad, gather on a hill next to the Palestinian town of Halhul, north of Hebron in the occupied West Bank MENAHEM KAHANA AFP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s historic deal with the UAE won praise abroad – but generated discontent from right-wing supporters and settlers over the suspension of land annexation plans.

“This agreement could signal a possible crisis in the relationship of Netanyahu and many of the settlers and their supporters in the Israeli right wing,” said Yohanan Plesner, director of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think-tank.

Figures on Israel’s nationalist right have called for a replacement to Netanyahu.

Netanyahu may have “gained a few points among centre-left voters, who like deals with the Arabs, but he lost several points with his right-wing base” whose “dream” of annexation of land has gone, said political commentator Ben Caspit, writing in Maariv newspaper.

The deal announced on Thursday sees Israel pledge to suspend its planned annexation of Palestinian lands, a concession welcomed by European and some pro-Western Arab governments as a boost for hopes of peace.

But Netanyahu, neck-and-neck with political rivals during the three last election campaigns, had used the issue of annexation to woo voters from the radical right and the settlers.

They are fierce opponents of any return of Palestinian territories, seized by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967.

– ‘Bitter pill’ –

Netanyahu’s unity government had announced a strategy to annex parts of the West Bank and Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territory, including the Jordan Valley, a strategic strip along the Jordanian border.

That plan was given the green light in January by US President Donald Trump.

But the surprise deal with the United Arab Emirates appears to put annexation on ice; Israeli, Emirati and US leaders said they had agreed “Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty” over West Bank areas.

The normalisation agreement is only Israel’s third with an Arab country, after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.

For commentator Ben Caspit, the deal was driven by opposition to annexation by members of the ruling coalition — such as Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi.

That “forced Netanyahu to recalculate”, and made him look for a way to get his supporters to swallow a “bitter pill”.

But since Netanyahu has said annexation of parts of the West Bank is only “postponed” and that Israel had “not given up”, some see it as only a matter of time before it resumes.

– ‘Myth has disappeared’ –

In Efrata, an Israeli settlement near the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, the head of the local council Oded Revivi tempered his disappointment.

“All these years people thought that peace with Arab countries could not be made, as long as there was a Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria,” he said, using the Jewish name for the West Bank.

“We see that this myth has disappeared.”

Revivi, looking back over the decades since the 1967 war, believes annexation has only been paused.

“It was put on hold, but nobody knows for how long,” Revivi added.

“We’ve been waiting for this for 53 years — maybe more than 2,000 years. I’m sure it will come back to the table and much faster than you think.”

The nationalist right have reacted bitterly.

They are angry that the deal “pauses” annexation – and thus keeps the idea alive of a viable separate Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“It is tragic that Netanyahu did not seize the moment, nor have the courage to apply sovereignty even over a centimetre of the Land of Israel, but sovereignty over the territories of our homeland will come,” said Naftali Bennet, leader of the radical right-wing nationalist Yamina alliance.

“We cannot ignore the great dangers posed by relaunching the talks for a Palestinian state,” said Bezalel Smotrich, another Yamina member, which sits in the opposition and draws much of its support from settlers.

“To face the danger, the right has to present here and now an alternative” to Netanyahu’s leadership, he said.

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