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Pompeo’s mission: a deal in Jerusalem?

Opinion Piece

Israel's new two-headed government, with Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister, was supposed to be sworn in on Wednesday. Then suddenly the inauguration was postponed by one day to accommodate a quick visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. What brought Pompeo so far for so short a time?

It obviously wasn't the declared agenda of co-ordinating American and Israeli policy on Covid-19 and Iran. Many American lives would have been spared if Trump had followed Israel's example on the coronavirus threat (Israeli deaths per million 30, US deaths per million 252), but it's too late for that now. And there's nothing very urgent about Iran at the moment.

The real purpose of Pompeo's lightning visit to Israel was to make sure that Netanyahu actually goes ahead with the annexation of part of the occupied West Bank, thus killing off the possibility of a “two-state solution” that includes a Palestinian state. But surely that's what Netanyahu wants to do anyway.

President Trump's “Vision for Peace”, released in January, endorsed the unilateral imposition of Israeli sovereignty on 30 percent of the West Bank. Netanyahu has made endless promises to Jewish settlers in the West Bank, an important part of the voting support for his various coalitions, to annex their settlements to Israel. So why was Pompeo's visit necessary?

It's because everybody knows Netanyahu can't be trusted — and he has reasons not to go ahead with the annexation as planned.

The bigger Arab states are all resigned to the end of Palestinian hopes for a state, but there would still be negative consequences for Israel in the region. Jordan has a long border with Israel, and popular protests against the annexation (the country's population is over half Palestinian) might force the king to end the peace treaty with Israel in order to survive.

The Palestinian Authority, an unelected body that effectively runs the occupied West Bank (except the Jewish settlements) on behalf of Israel, would probably collapse. That would leave Israel with the difficult task of maintaining direct military rule over three million Palestinians.

Even worse, if Netanyahu actually annexed the West Bank, he would lose the ability to dangle that promise endlessly before the settler voting bloc. He is quite cynical enough to be guided by this calculation, so Donald Trump cannot trust him to do the annexation — and Trump really needs him to do it before November, because of the US election.

“For Trump's evangelical and right-wing Jewish base, Israeli annexation — and the last rites it will administer to the dying two-state solution — is wildly popular,” wrote Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, in the Israeli newspaper ‘Haaretz'. Trump will need the enthusiastic support of those voters to win in November, so he has to nail Netanyahu down now.

That is tricky, because the government that has just taken power in Jerusalem is far more complicated than the usual Israeli coalition. It is a two-headed monster in which Netanyahu's Likud bloc and Benny Ganz's Blue-and-White bloc (which was originally founded with the explicit goal of driving Netanyahu from office) will not share power but exercise it separately.

It says so right in Article 2 of the 14-page coalition agreement: “The government will be a two-bloc government.”

Netanyahu and Ganz will each appoint half the ministers, and they will have no power to change or dismiss those appointed by the other man.

Netanyahu and Ganz will each be prime minister for eighteen months, and every government committee will be equally divided between the blocs. For the first six months, at least, both men will have a veto on any proposed legislation — with one important exception. From July 1, Netanyahu can propose a law annexing part of the West Bank without fear of a veto by Ganz.

Netanyahu fought hard for that exception, because Trump is his ally and he needs to be able to deliver for Trump on the annexation. But how much of the West Bank should Israel seize? Mike Pompeo is there to help the unwilling partners decide, and here's what he's probably selling.

Trump would be content to have Israel annex only a few chunks of the West Bank near the Israeli border — say Gush Etzion, Maale Adumim and Ariel. Most of his evangelical supporters wouldn't notice the difference, because they're not good on the geography of modern Israel (although they are pretty solid on Old Testament geography).

Benny Ganz would settle for that too, because it would be less likely to trigger the collapse of the Palestinian Authority or the abrogation of the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan.

And Netanyahu? He would still have the annexation of the other Jewish settlements in the West Bank to dangle before the settler voters of the next generation. Even if he's convicted of corruption in his forthcoming trial, he's only 70.

' Gwynne Dyer's new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)'.

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