Netanyahu’s Annexation Plans Meet Surprise Opponent: Israeli Settlers

JERUSALEM — Having crushed his political opponents and won a new term, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cleared a path to fulfilling his most polarizing campaign promise: annexing occupied West Bank territory, the long-held dream of right-wing Jewish settlers.

Yet with a month until he says he will apply Israeli sovereignty over large stretches of land the Palestinians have counted on for a future state, Mr. Netanyahu is suddenly facing stiff resistance, including a surprising rebellion in the ranks of the settler leaders who have been agitating for annexation for years.

Mr. Netanyahu’s plan, they argue, would open the door for a Palestinian state while ending any expansion of Israeli settlements in much of the West Bank, killing the religious-Zionist project to achieve dominion over the entire biblical homeland of the Jews.

“It’s either or,” Bezalel Smotrich, a firebrand lawmaker who has led the push for annexation, said in an interview. “Either the settlements have a future, or the Palestinian state does — but not both.”

The unexpectedly fierce opposition, coupled with mixed signals from the Trump administration, is raising questions about whether Mr. Netanyahu will follow through on his annexation pledges after all.

On the left, supporters of a two-state solution have been sounding the alarm for months, saying that unilateral annexation by Israel — which would be condemned by most of the world as a violation of international law — would break its commitments to the Palestinians under prior peace agreements and destroy any hope of a conflict-ending deal.

Current and former Israeli military officials have begun to weigh in, too, warning that annexation could ignite a new wave of violence in the West Bank and force King Abdullah II of Jordan to adopt a hard-line stance against Israel, endangering the two nations’ peace treaty.

But it is the emerging opposition among settlers that potentially poses the most disruptive obstacle.

Mr. Netanyahu promised annexation in three successive election campaigns over the past year. In January, his promise won the backing of the Trump administration, whose peace plan allows Israel to keep up to 30 percent of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley as well as all existing Jewish settlements, which most of the world considers illegal.

There is pressure on Mr. Netanyahu to act swiftly. The American presidential election in November could replace Mr. Trump with former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has spoken out against unilateral annexation.

That makes the next several months a window of opportunity that could slam shut, said Oded Revivi, the mayor of the Efrat settlement. “Eat it now, before the ice cream melts,” he said.

But the loudest voices in the settlements — including influential activists, mayors and community leaders — argue that Mr. Netanyahu’s vision for annexation amounts to no less than the death knell for religious Zionism.

Citing a yet-to-be published map of the annexation plan Mr. Netanyahu is drafting with the Trump administration, these critics say it leaves too many Jewish settlements as disconnected enclaves that would be barred from expanding. And they say it would further isolate them from the rest of Israel, giving the Palestinians control of roads that could turn a 35-minute commute to Jerusalem into a roundabout desert trek of two hours or more.

The result will be the evisceration of the settlements, they argue. “No one will want to live in an enclave, no one will want to build a home in an enclave and no one will be able to sell their home in an enclave,” said Yochai Damri, chairman of the South Hebron Hills Regional Council.

A minority of settlement leaders are behind Mr. Netanyahu, mainly from communities close to the Green Line, the pre-1967 boundary separating Israel from the West Bank. Many of these communities are populated not by ideological settlers but by people who moved there seeking affordable housing or a better quality of life.

They say that Israeli sovereignty will remove a question mark that has always loomed over their homes.

“It’s an acknowledgment that the places we are living in are part of Israel for eternity,” said Nir Bartal, mayor of Oranit. “There have been several decades of people talking about evacuation. We are now saying we are here to stay.”

Mr. Netanyahu only began pushing annexation last year as a way to shore up right-wing support during three hard-fought re-election contests against Benny Gantz, a centrist former army chief who campaigned on a promise to oppose any unilateral moves.

But Mr. Netanyahu’s continued push to expand Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank, even when he is on trial for corruption, has led to speculation that he wants to cement his legacy. Annexing the Jordan Valley, on the eastern edge of the West Bank abutting Jordan, would give Israel a permanent eastern border for the first time. In his coalition agreement for a unity government with Mr. Gantz, Mr. Netanyahu won the right to proceed with annexation as soon as July 1.

The Trump administration’s peace plan envisions Israel retaining control over the Jordan Valley and existing settlements in the West Bank while allowing the Palestinians to work toward some form of limited sovereignty elsewhere. But the Palestinians could only achieve that provided they disarm Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, accept overriding Israeli security control, recognize Israel as a Jewish state, give up on the goal of having a capital in East Jerusalem and agree to a range of other conditions few believe they would ever accept.

Some annexation proponents argue that those conditions preclude the possibility of a Palestinian state, so settlers should not fear the Trump plan. Mr. Revivi, for one, said he did not believe the Palestinians would turn “from wolves into sheep.” Still, he said he hoped they would meet the American conditions for statehood, “because I want to see a better reality.”

But Mr. Smotrich and his fellow hard-liners believe that a new administration in America could abandon those requirements.

“Very quickly, all those conditions will be forgotten,” Mr. Smotrich said. “You will quickly lose control, and what will basically happen is a state like Gaza will be established.”

The American ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman, has sought to assuage fears of a “terrorist state” emerging on the West Bank, telling an Israeli newspaper last month that Israel would only have to contend with a Palestinian state “when the Palestinians become Canadians.”

The debate on the Israeli right boils down to whether Mr. Netanyahu’s push to apply sovereignty on the West Bank is a ploy to get settlers to agree to a Palestinian state, or whether the Trump peace plan is a ploy to get supporters of a two-state solution to go along with Israeli annexation.

Fueling both sides of the argument is a perceived rift within the Trump administration’s Middle East team, which has sent conflicting signals since January, when Mr. Friedman encouraged immediate annexation, only to be countermanded by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who slowed things down by requiring that an Israeli-American mapping committee first agree on the contours.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also appeared to be pumping the brakes on annexation during a brief visit to Israel last month.

Mr. Smotrich said settlers believed the administration was divided into two camps: One, led by Mr. Friedman, is made up of people who “really don’t want to establish a Palestinian state, and they want a good map for Israel.” The other is led by Mr. Kushner, who appears more invested in the Trump peace plan, having led its development and worked hard to win support for it within the Arab world.

Mr. Smotrich said he would prefer the status quo over a plan that even contemplates allowing for a Palestinian state at the expense of expanding Jewish settlements.

“I don’t want shortcuts that harm my ability to put facts on the ground and that weaken the settlements,” he said. “If the sovereignty map is favorable, I will accept it with open arms. If not, I prefer to go without it. I will persevere, work hard, set up settlements and fight with the Palestinians for another 20 years.

“And in 20 years,” he continued, “the American government will give me sovereignty over all of the territory, because there will be settlements on all of the territory.”