JERUSALEM, ISRAEL — July 27, 2020 — At the beginning of July, all eyes and pundits were focused on Israel’s plan to apply sovereignty to portions of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), with speculation about when Israel would do it, over what territory, and what the political, diplomatic, and military fallout would be. What a difference a month makes!
Albeit sanctioned by the Trump “Peace to Prosperity” plan, and specifically mentioned as a legislative action central to the Israeli government coalition agreement, nothing has happened. It’s possible that in the foreseeable future, nothing will, and that plans for sovereignty are another unexpected victim of the Corona crisis.
While the US was eager to roll out and implement the peace plan, changing the paradigm of decades of failed peace efforts, who knew in January that weeks later the world economy would become devastated as the pandemic spread, infections and death increased, or a virus would become an unexpected focus of most countries domestic, economic and foreign policies.
The pandemic and its ongoing aftermath have become both a central part of the US election season, as well as a distraction from other issues that might otherwise be on the top of the agenda. Accordingly, even things like the “Deal of the Century,” a pillar of Trump’s foreign policy as it waited to be rolled out through more than a year of Israeli campaigns and elections, has been pushed to the back burner if not off the stove entirely.
What had previously been bold US declarations that sovereignty was up to Israel, and that Israel doing so was not only not an obstacle to peace but even central to a new peace plan, have now evolved into silence. It’s hard to determine if the US is in a prolonged first wave, staggered second wave, or maybe even a third wave of infections. But one thing is sure, that the consequence of the pandemic has made tackling it central to the presidential election. The “Peace to Prosperity” plan is on the table, but as far as being a main foreign policy agenda item, it’s as if someone in Washington pushed the pause button.
In Israel, “Peace to Prosperity” became a central theme of the third national election this past March which saw a virtual stalemate like the two before in the preceding 11 months. In a sense, the government was saved by the pandemic with Prime Minister Netanyahu and now Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz agreeing to form a unity government whose main and immediate purpose would be fixing the economic and medical impact of the pandemic. The one other legislative item part of the coalition agreement was the beginning of application of sovereignty as soon as July 1. Now, that feels like ancient history.
But the government took its eyes off the ball handling the pandemic. Israel went from a country leading the world as a model for halting its spread, to one where the outbreak came back in a second and more widespread wave. Only this past week did the government agree to the appointment of a pandemic Czar, amid finger, politically oriented pointing, and new restrictions imposed, and then reversed, literally overnight; all creating confusion as to any cohesive policy to tackle the virus and its outcome.
Leading up to the July 1st date when Israel might apply sovereignty, numerous government and opposition leaders made a range of declarative statements about when they would apply sovereignty and over what parts of biblical Judea and Samaria. Opposition leaders on the left and the right made their own declarative statements how they would either apply sovereignty better, and conversely with some saying it was illegal and Israel had no right to do so. Healthy debate raged through the country running the gamut of all of these. Some said “Yes” to apply sovereignty but “No” to accepting the Trump plan because it set terms for a Palestinian state.
If people were betting on the outcome in Las Vegas, its hard to imagine which of many options of applying sovereignty had the best odds. But the second wave of the pandemic has hit Israel hard. Borders remain closed to non-Israelis with almost no exception. Unemployment remains well above 20% and the economy is devastated. Infection and death rates have spiraled. Israelis used to their summer vacation are hot and cranky over continued restrictions made worse by the financial fallout that’s left most with less money, if not at least increased instability, stress, and uncertainty as to the future.
For now, at least in the public agenda, it seems that all talk of sovereignty has stopped. Protests over the government handling the crisis have taken the place of protests respectively for and against sovereignty. Polls indicate growing frustration and lack of public trust in the government handling the crisis. That has reverted to occupying the time and attention of most government leaders. Almost.
Since before the current coalition agreement was signed, people were betting on how long the emergency unity government would last. People still wonder whether it will last for another 16 months when Netanyahu is supposed to step aside and Gantz becomes Prime Minister per the agreement. Will the government last? Will there be a natural, or forced breakup? Will Netanyahu try to call new elections based on polls indicating he and the Likud party were on the rise in June as most agreed that sovereignty was a good thing, and the government had done a good job handling the first wave? Will he gamble on the polls and try new elections to strengthen his hand? Are any of these or other options now simply a charade for him not have to cede power in 2021?
And then the pandemic hit, again. Infections doubled. Deaths rose. Pundits fault the prime minister for not managing the pandemic, but focusing on politics. Despite the coalition agreement to consider sovereignty, were the declarative statements and time and energy focused on that not a distraction from the government’s main purpose to arrest the outcome of the pandemic.
Now, polls show a steady decline in support for Netanyahu and Likud which means that new elections would be strategically unwise. He has now set up a top-notch person to handle the crisis in all its aspects. But one thing he seemingly does not have is the luxury or mandate to focus on sovereignty domestically without US support.
There may be a diplomatic intensive care unit somewhere in Israel trying to find ways to keep sovereignty alive, just like the government and Israel’s medical system are trying to keep Israelis alive. But for now, sovereignty may be on life support, a victim of COVID-19, and the short-term prognosis may not be good.