As expected, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began his latest mission on Thursday with praise for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The key part of his statement at Thursday's press conference was that the issues are known (to the point of exhaustion), and soon tough decisions will need to be made. Kerry's current trip to the region represents the opening of a new chapter, as the secretary of state tries to extend negotiations and make substantive progress on painful issues.
It is likely that some of the difficulties will be exposed before Kerry departs on Monday. Both sides are continuing their preparations. Netanyahu's sharp criticism of Abbas in front of Kerry was an opening shot.
The visit of a Likud delegation, led by Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar, to the Jordan Valley on Thursday just before Kerry's arrival raised several questions. Are Likud ministers, deputy ministers and MKs concerned that Netanyahu will accept U.S.-proposed security arrangements that do not meet the minimum that Israel is demanding? Do they fear that Netanyahu will give up on the demand to maintain an ongoing Israeli military presence along the Jordan River? By the way, Jordan actually prefers an Israeli security presence in this area over a Palestinian one. Are these concerns why the Likud delegation made the trip and demanded Israeli sovereignty in the Jordan Valley? Or perhaps this was all just an internal Likud power struggle, with ministers battling for the support of Likud Central Committee members. In that arena, political attacks pay off.
Opinions on the Jordan Valley issue are divided, from President Shimon Peres on down. Some Israelis believe that, in the age of ballistic missiles, an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley is not important. Others say, however, that terrorists do not just use ballistic missiles, and an IDF presence in the area is vital to the prevention of other types of terrorist activities. This line of thought was used to justify the Jordan Valley sovereignty bill that was approved by the Ministerial Commitee for Legislation but was blocked from being brought before the full Knesset and has no real chance of becoming law.
On the other end of the spectrum, Labor MK Hilik Bar has proposed a bill that would prohibit Israel from annexing Palestinian areas without the agreement of the Palestinians. In other words, there would not be any more unilateral annexations. What David Ben-Gurion did regarding west Jerusalem in 1949, what Levi Eshkol did regarding east Jerusalem in 1967 and what Menachem Begin did regarding the Golan Heights in 1981 would be forbidden by law.
In essence, I agree that Israel would be making a mistake if it were to unilaterally annex parts of Judea and Samaria at this time. The diplomatic situation has changed since Begin's annexation of the Golan Heights 32 years ago. But the Knesset would also be making a mistake if it were to tie its own hands by limiting Israel's options. There could be a scenario in the future in which the government -- and perhaps a majority of the opposition -- would feel that only unilateral annexation, or the threat of it, would convince the Palestinians to stop their procrastination and come seriously to the negotiating table.
Handcuffing ourselves would not provide any benefits. On the contrary, it would unnecessarily weaken us. The Knesset must be able to decide, with self-restraint, on unreasonable proposals for unilateral annexations. It should not hide behind a sweeping decision that is not suitable for all potential future political situations. The right to annex should be preserved in mothballs, but not thrown out the window.