Regardless of the exact breakdown of tomorrow’s election results in Israel, prospects for a two-state solution will continue to be at risk for the foreseeable future. Much of the political center-right now appears to favor annexing all or parts of the West Bank, which risks foreclosing the possibility of two states. Late in 2017, the Likud Central Committee made annexation the official position of the party. The main party to Likud’s right, Yamina, is headed by political figures who have long championed annexation. Israeli rightists have grown impatient with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who they think is squandering the historic opportunity for annexation represented by the friendly Trump administration.

Last Tuesday, Netanyahu recapitulated his April pre-election commitment to annex the settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley. This pledge is a significant upping of the ante compared to his promise in the final days of the 2015 campaign to simply oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. There is a considerable difference between not moving in a particular direction – basically maintaining the status quo, which has always been Netanyahu’s raison d’être – and forcefully moving toward a fateful confrontation that will fundamentally alter the status quo.

Despite the “dramatic” nature of Netanyahu’s announcement, I would suggest the real dangers of annexation do not come from him. Those looking to stop annexation and preserve the conditions for a two-state solution should be most concerned about the meek opposition to annexation in Israel and America’s shift from being a check on the most destructive impulses of the Israeli right to egging on the irredentists in the Knesset.

Despite his campaign promises, most knowledgeable observers do not believe Netanyahu personally favors annexation; genuine supporters of annexation on the Israeli right also don’t believe him. As a  result of his inclination toward the status quo, Netanyahu appears equally opposed to both the two-state solution and the one-state solution, the latter which he usually describes as a “binational state” that endangers Israel’s character as a Jewish state. He has certainly made strategic pivots to mollify certain actors in the international and domestic arenas, but they should not be confused with firm movements toward either the two-state or one-state paradigms.

This point is nicely fleshed out in a recent article published in Political Science Quarterly by Guy Ziv of American University. Dr. Ziv deftly employs “learning theory” to show that both the April pre-election annexation promise and the 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech, in which Netanyahu first publicly endorsed the two-state solution, are examples of tactical adjustments rather than genuine changes of outlook of the type that characterized the policy shifts of several of his predecessors – namely Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ariel Sharon – each of whom was prompted to pursue policies that differed dramatically from their previous positions.

In the case of the Bar-Ilan adjustment toward two-states, Netanyahu was reacting to political pressure from the newly inaugurated Obama administration. When he moved away from this tactical position in the days before the 2015 and (both) 2019 elections, it was in response to domestic pressures and the perceived need for Likud to “cannibalize” votes from other right-wing parties. It is notable that in the 2013 election, when he did not face a serious prospect of defeat, Netanyahu did not make much of an effort to satiate the right’s desire for annexation.

What made annexation a frighteningly realistic scenario after April’s election was Netanyahu’s apparent willingness to do anything to pass an immunity law, which would protect him from prosecution in three pending corruption cases. This fixation with immunity ruled out a coalition with any party outside the right-wing bloc, as they would not entertain supporting immunity. This rendered Netanyahu unable to leverage the possibility of forging a coalition with more moderate partners, thus enabling Avigdor Liberman to trigger a repeat election by insisting on terms the ultra-Orthodox parties could not accept.

If the polls are broadly correct, Netanyahu will not be able to form a right-wing government in which the trade of immunity for annexation is conceivable. Liberman’s Yisrael Beteinu party is projected to double its number of seats, and he has pledged to insist on a secular unity government led by Likud and Kachol Lavan, the main opposition party, which refuses to countenance immunity or sitting with a prime minister under indictment. Theoretically, this should eliminate whatever incentive existed for Netanyahu to make a tactical shift toward annexation; without immunity on the table, it’s simply hard to imagine Netanyahu the conservative embracing such a radical policy.

But if Netanyahu will not be the driving force behind annexation, he may still be at the wheel as Israel careens toward such an outcome. This is because he now lacks the strategic tools he has used to stop annexationist ambitions before: potential coalition partners with a moderate outlook on the issue, and an American administration willing to play bad cop – or at least not undermine that perception – in Netanyahu’s political bargaining strategy. This combination once empowered Netanyahu to stymie his ambitious rivals on the right by pointing to the invaluable U.S-Israel relationship or forming a coalition that simply won’t consider the idea in the first place.

Both of these factors are now weaker than they have ever been. Far from being strongly opposed to Netanyahu’s latest experiment with annexation talk, Kachol Lavan, which dominates the centrist opposition, is peeved that the Likud leader stole their idea of extending sovereignty to the Jordan Valley. In reality, most of Kachol Lavan’s leaders and MKs might not support immediate annexation of the Jordan Valley, but they have painted themselves into a corner from which they may not be able to escape so easily.

Under President Trump, the U.S. cannot be relied on to provide thoughtful and steady leadership in the region. The official U.S. response to Netanyahu’s speech last week may have been cold and unsupportive, but Trump is famously fickle and has already set a precedent for flagrant norm-breaking by recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. If he expresses even mild support for unilateral annexation, either through a tweet or a formal final status framework, the argument that such a move will mean certain pain for Israel becomes a harder sell. Even in a unity government, Netanyahu might not be able to withstand the pressure from the right to proceed with annexation while Trump is in the White House and his moderate coalition partner has backed the very same policy.

If annexation is to be avoided, either Kachol Lavan or the Trump administration will need to restore balance to Israel’s political sphere by making clear during coalition talks that they will not countenance it.

I am cautiously optimistic that the political center under Kachol Lavan will help Israel avoid annexation in the near future, although the Trump administration represents something of a possible spoiler in this scenario as it contemplates releasing its peace plan after the election. Nevertheless, the abyss is distressingly visible from where we stand.