Benjamin Netanyahu is the consummate political survivor. Leaders are usually booted from office after a couple of terms as voters tire of the status quo and search for fresh faces. But Netanyahu, who managed to surge back into the prime minister’s quarters a decade after being shellacked by Ehud Barak’s Labor Party in 1999, has proven himself to be Israel’s most skilled politico. Even a pending indictment on corruption charges and a forceful and credible challenge from Benny Gantz, Israel’s former top general, wasn’t enough to get Bibi to pack up his things and go.
Israel’s most divisive election in contemporary history ended late on the night of April 9, with the polls neck-and-neck. While Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party each won 35 seats in the Knesset, right-wing parties—all of which threw their support behind Netanyahu—eked out a victory for the incumbent. He did it largely by viscerally attacking his opponent, whom he depicted as mentally unprepared to serve in the prime ministerial role, and by launching a Hail Mary pass down the field to consolidate Israel’s conservative and Orthodox voters days before polling booths opened. There is no better way to unify the Right in Israel than by hinting that annexation of the settlement blocs in the West Bank is an idea whose time has come. In Netanyahu’s case, he went above and beyond hinting—in a televised appearance days before the vote, he essentially ratified it as a new project of his administration.
Having clinched a fifth term and set the stage to become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s young history, Netanyahu will now have to fulfill those promises, lest his coalition government collapse. At the very least, he will need to demonstrate to his right-wing allies that the talk about formally bringing the settlements into Israel proper was more than a last-gasp political ploy to save his premiership.
What is smart politics for Bibi Netanyahu, however, is terrible policy for Israel. There is no denying that actually annexing the West Bank would be the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution. While the large Israeli settlement blocs near the 1967 line would likely remain part of Israel in any peace agreement anyway, this would not be the case for settlers living in the smaller outposts dotting the West Bank. Netanyahu’s refusal to distinguish the large settlements from the small ones means that the independent Palestinian state that’s been at the heart of the two-state solution since even before the Oslo Accords were signed would be physically impossible. Instead the West Bank would forever become a collection of separate, non-contiguous Palestinian communities under Israeli jurisdiction. The Palestinian Authority would transition from the joke it now is into a ruse.
Past U.S. administrations would have counseled an Israeli prime minister to avoid annexation like the plague. Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all firmly believed that giving the Palestinians a state of their own was the only way to close the book on a crisis that has spanned multiple generations. Successive American-supported peace processes between Israeli and Palestinian leaders were rooted in the two-state, land-for-peace framework; even Netanyahu at one point acknowledged that practically speaking a Palestinian state must be established. While most of these peace talks collapsed amid acrimonious finger-pointing and an inability to agree on a formula addressing the four core components of a resolution (security, borders, Jerusalem, and the status of refugees), there was always an across-the-board assumption that annexation was a stupid idea.
Unfortunately, events on the ground have been moving faster than the politicians in Jerusalem and Ramallah can manage. Including East Jerusalem, there are now more than 600,000 settlers living on land that Palestinians claim as part of a future state. Terrorism against Israelis in the West Bank and attacks on Israeli soldiers manning checkpoints remain a persistent problem, not to mention the circular rounds of violence between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip. The Mideast peace process, for all intents and purposes, has been dead for the last five years. And notwithstanding Jared Kushner’s “deal of the century,” the Trump administration has ostracized the Palestinian Authority to such an extent over the last year that Ramallah is likely to shred any proposal that Washington sends their way.
Israelis and Palestinians have been talking past each other for years. Nobody is blameless for this state of affairs. Indeed, through selfishness, parochialism, and politics, both sides have perpetuated one of the Middle East’s oldest conflicts. There is very little the United States or any third-party mediator can do until the two parties start acting like adults and realize that difficult but bold compromises are the only avenue out of this impasse. With Benjamin Netanyahu beholden to a right-wing coalition, however, it’s unlikely that will happen anytime soon.
Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist for the American Conservative and the Washington Examiner. All options expressed in this article are the author’s alone.