The swearing in of Israel’s unity government is set to begin on Sunday, bringing an end to nearly 18 months of political deadlock and returning Benjamin Netanyahu to the prime minister’s office for the fifth time.
The new administration, filled with freshly created ministries to woo rival parliamentarians, is designed to last three years and intended, first and foremost, to deal with the threat of coronavirus.
Under the unity arrangement, Mr Netanyahu will hand the leadership to his rival turned deputy prime minister, Benny Gantz, after 18 months. Until then, Mr Netanyahu has pledged to stamp out the virus and revive an economy battered by the outbreak, all while fighting off charges of corruption in a trial scheduled to begin within a week.
But Mr Netanyahu also has a third immediate objective: the annexation of thousands of square kilometres of arable land in the Jordan Valley, the eastern edge of the occupied West Bank, that Palestinians claim for their own state.
A long-term objective of the Israeli rightwing, Mr Netanyahu’s coalition agreement with Mr Gantz places a deadline of July 1 to begin the legal process for annexation.
If he can achieve it, the five-time prime minister will cement his political legacy among his supporters, capping three decades of resistance to Palestinian independence with a single act.
The EU and UK are already indicating that such a move would have a high diplomatic cost, because it would destroy any possibility of a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with borders roughly along the lines that existed before the 1967 war.
Some British parliamentarians have urged the government in London to take a more forceful role in marking such a move as a violation of international law, while the Europeans are considering economic measures to mark their displeasure.
But Mr Netanyahu sees a short window of opportunity created by the Israeli rightwing’s alliance with Christian evangelicals who form the base of support for US president Donald Trump.
Mr Trump’s peace plan, formulated with no Palestinian inputs, envisions a much smaller Palestinian state than prior plans championed by US presidents, with no military and no control of its own borders, built around the land remaining after Israeli annexation.
The US has so far been coy about whether it would immediately recognise a move by Israel to formally annex territory that Jewish settlers have created in land seized from Jordanian control in 1967. Annexation will extend Israeli civilian law to settlements, which are currently governed by the military.
While Mr Trump’s peace plan makes a nod towards Israeli annexation being tied to successful talks with Palestinians for a negotiated settlement, rightwing Israelis have taken the Palestinian rejection of the plan as a signal to press ahead regardless. This has cheered Israeli settlers who resist any possibility of their homes being surrounded by a Palestinian state.
Oded Revivi, mayor of Efrat, an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, said: “The price tag [for the peace plan] was to have a period of negotiations with the Palestinians, to satisfy the Trump White House, so it can show the Gulf states that ‘look, we tried’.”
Mr Revivi, who also serves as a foreign envoy for the 650,000 Israeli Jews in the West Bank, believes any wider diplomatic fallout would be limited.
“The Europeans are not as strong as they were during Oslo,” he said, referring to the 1993 peace accord under which the Palestinian Liberation Organization recognised Israel and renounce armed militancy in exchange for phased Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. “We will [only] need the veto of the US” on the UN security council to block any consequential international reaction, he added.
Israel still resents the decision by former US president Barack Obama to withhold the US veto against a security council resolution demanding an end to settlement activity in the last days of his presidency.
The Trump White House, angered by Palestinian refusals to engage with Mr Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East peace envoy, Jared Kushner, since a 2017 decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, has already recognised Israel’s 1981 annexation of land seized from Syria in the 1967 war. No other nation has recognised that claim.