Editor’s Note: Guy Ziv is an assistant professor of international relations at American University’s School of International Service. Benjamin L. Shaver is a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Committee on International Relations.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex the Jordan Valley, announced one week before Israel’s election re-do, is an act of desperation by an embattled prime minister looking to shore up his right-wing base. Yet without the acquiescence of his friend in the White House, President Donald Trump, and the virtual silence of his centrist rivals on the territorial issue, Netanyahu would not be upping the ante in this way—after declining to make such plans during his 13 years in power.
In a normal political climate, his campaign vow two weeks ago to apply Israeli sovereignty on all Jewish settlements in the West Bank would have sparked outrage. These dramatic, unprecedented moves – which, if implemented, will likely ring the death knell for the two-state solution – would have served as the focal point for the opposition’s efforts to topple Israel’s longest-serving premier.
These times, though, are anything but normal. Netanyahu’s recent announcements, like a pledge to annex parts of the West Bank he made three days before the April 9th elections, have barely registered in the campaign of Blue and White, the centrist party co-led by Generals Benny Gantz, Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, and Gabi Ashkenazi (all former chiefs of the Israeli Defense Forces) along with former finance minister Yair Lapid. In the current election cycle, as in April, Blue and White has focused on Netanyahu’s corruption scandals, avoiding discussion of the future of the West Bank.
A funny thing has happened to the ex-generals on their way to the Knesset: they have fallen silent. In the era of Netanyahu, the courage they displayed on the battlefield has all but disappeared in the political arena.
In today’s charged atmosphere, even the nation’s top warriors and spymasters are not immune from being branded as “leftists” by Netanyahu, a practice he has made into an art form and which has inoculated him from substantive criticism of his policies. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak – himself a former IDF chief of staff – and Yair Golan, the ex-IDF deputy chief of staff, are exceptions to this rule, having embraced the left by merging their new party with Meretz, a small, liberal party, to create a new bloc. By contrast, the generals of Blue and White have attempted to blur the lines between the two major parties in an effort to attract right-wing voters who are fed up with Netanyahu but would not dare cast a ballot for a party they perceive as left wing.
Yet, the seasoned veterans of Israel’s security establishment are plainly aware of the dire implications of Netanyahu’s policy pronouncement: the death of the Zionist dream and advent of a bi-national nightmare.
It is difficult to imagine that the ex-IDF chiefs and the other retired senior security officials in Blue and White disagree with Barak and Golan or with the Commanders For Israel’s Security, a coalition of retired security officials that denounced Netanyahu’s policy of “creeping annexation” because it jeopardizes the country’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. Each of the three former IDF chiefs, in fact, contributed to last year’s strategic framework, published by the prestigious Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), which called for the creation of a Palestinian “entity” (if not a full-fledged state) under control of the Palestinian Authority and warned of “the drift toward a one-state solution.”
In our study of the Israeli security community’s positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, published in this summer’s issue of Survival, we found broad support for a two-state solution among retired security officials who have publicly expressed an opinion on the matter. (Our dataset did not include those who had said nothing about it.)
Moreover, many of the senior veterans interviewed for our study pointed out that support for the two-state solution among the former IDF brass is higher than the available public statements suggest given that those eyeing politics upon retirement from their security posts often steer clear of expressing an opinion on this issue, fearing it would be a political liability.
Viewed in this context, it is not surprising that Gantz has yet to repeat his remarks from a speech he gave two years ago, in which he said that solving the conflict with the Palestinians must be the highest national priority. Nor is it by chance that Ashkenazi has not been emphasizing his own suggestion, in 2012, that Israel should consider a withdrawal from the West Bank. Even Ya’alon, the team’s hawk who opposes an independent Palestinian state, has refrained from repeating his past published remarks that large-scale annexation would be a “grave mistake” that would undermine “Israel’s unshakable commitment to the preservation of the country’s Jewish and democratic character.”
Instead, the Blue and White team has released a prosaic and timid platform stating that there will be no additional disengagement and that every historic diplomatic decision will be brought to the public in a referendum or require a supermajority in the Knesset.
The question now is what the generals-turned-politicians will do after the elections. With the Trump White House giving Netanyahu carte blanche, the only pressure the prime minister faces is from the settler movement and its supporters on his right flank. Will Gantz and Blue and White provide countervailing pressure by taking a bold stand in support of a two-state solution – and, hopefully, stop Israel’s slide toward a bi-national state?
Time is not on their side.