Why Israel’s leaders do not discuss such momentous, fatal decisions as annexation with experts on the issue.
In its coalition agreement with the Likud, the Blue and White Party under the leadership of Benny Gantz has given a seal of approval to annexing parts of Judea and Samaria. According to the somewhat vague legal phrasing, “the prime minister will be able to present the agreement reached with the United States on the application of sovereignty for debate by the cabinet and government and for approval by the government and/or the Knesset as of July 1, 2020.”
The Likud under Benjamin Netanyahu and its allied right-wing parties view this as a historic opportunity to realize their ideological vision that incorporates parts of Judea and Samaria into the State of Israel. This opportunity stems from an almost “mystic” merging of three different and unusual factors.
The first, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has sidelined conflicts in various parts of the world and provided local actors with leeway to take advantage of the situation, for example in Yemen and Libya as well as in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
The second element is the highly sympathetic attitude of President Trump, who is responsible for several unilateral moves in Israel’s favor, such as the transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, suspension of US aid to UNRWA, and publication of a peace plan that green-lights Israeli annexation of territory in Judea and Samaria.
Secretary of State Pompeo even declared that annexation in the West Bank “is an Israeli decision.” Moreover, Trump’s miserable performance in the coronavirus crisis could result in a November victory for Democrat Joe Biden, who has declared that the US must exert pressure on Israel to move forward with a two-state solution. This concern over Trump’s reelection prospects leaves Netanyahu with a narrow time frame in which to implement an annexation decision.
The third factor is the absorption of Middle Eastern states in their own problems. This is particularly true of Iran and Turkey, which are now dealing with the serious repercussions of the coronavirus epidemic. The epidemic has not (yet?) spread in the Arab world, but its economic implications – plummeting oil prices, suspension of tourism and more, in addition to the hardships that have dogged these states since the Arab Spring – portend a gloomy economic forecast with potential political implications for the stability of their regimes. In other words, the Palestinian problem is hardly at the top of the Arab leaders’ agendas.
The vague language of the coalition agreement’s articles regarding annexation does not refer to the extent of the targeted area. In this regard, several suppositions are possible.
First, annexation could encompass settlements expected to come under Israeli sovereignty in any case under a future agreement with the Palestinians, as discussed in past negotiating rounds, such as the Etzion bloc and other settlement blocs adjacent to the Green Line.
In return, as per these understandings, Israel would hand the Palestinian Authority (PA) territory in the Negev or elsewhere equal in size to that of the annexed settlements. The size of these territories could range from 4% to 10% of the West Bank.
THE SECOND option, as Netanyahu pledged during his election campaigns, is annexation of the Jordan Valley that comprises 17% of the West Bank.
Under the final, extreme scenario, Israel would annex the entire territory designated as Area C that makes up some 60% of the West Bank. One of the first two scenarios appears more likely given the political makeup of the emerging coalition.
Responsible leadership cannot look only at opportunities without taking into account the risks lurking in their implementation. Israel faces at least seven risks in the international and regional arenas should it decide on annexation.
• First, the European Union (EU), Israel’s largest trade partner, has declared that it does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the lands it captured in 1967, and has threatened that annexation would have consequences. Some do not attribute great importance to the EU’s role in the conflict, especially given the divisions among its 27 member states.
Nonetheless, one should recall that the EU has also rejected the Trump plan and presumably would view annexation of parts of the West Bank, in violation of its consistent policy since the 1980 Venice Declaration, as a provocation requiring demonstrative punitive measures in the diplomatic and economic fields.
• Second, the PA and the Palestinians around the world will be unable to ignore such blatant violation of the status quo. Beyond the expected public condemnations of such a move, the responses could lead to West Bank riots escalating into a third intifada, or uprising.
This is not the first time such a potential threat has come up (and has not been borne out), but this time the situation will be exacerbated by protests against the PA and Israel over the economic downturn. The PA could conceivably halt all security cooperation with Israel.
Yet another threat that has arisen in the past, it could dismantle itself and leave Israel with no recourse other than imposing renewed military rule in the West Bank.
• The third risk could loom from Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, with Iranian help and support, which could escalate tensions along Israel’s borders and even result in war.
• The fourth threat lies in the expected aggressive reactions of Arab states. On April 30, the Arab League was quick to issue a formal statement warning that any annexation of Palestinian territory occupied since 1967 would constitute a “new war crime.” While the League is largely an ineffectual body, its declarations carry moral and diplomatic weight that could affect those states that maintain ties with Israel.
Thus, for example, Jordan and Egypt could recall their ambassadors. Since they have already done so during past crises related to the Palestinian issue (for example, uprisings in the territories or Israeli military operations in Gaza), public protests could force them to take a more radical step, which would threaten the integrity of their peace agreements with Israel.
Jordan and Egypt are already active behind the scenes around the world, and perhaps vis-à-vis Israel, too, in an attempt to prevent annexation, realizing the danger to their regimes that such a step could pose.
• THE FIFTH threat stems from the possible undermining of covert Israeli cooperation with the Gulf states. Several television series produced for the month of Ramadan this year reflect a positive change in the Gulf’s image of Jews and Israel, proving that the covert cooperation with them is not accidental. However, a decision to annex parts of the West Bank would present Gulf monarchies with difficulties in continuing the momentum of improved ties with Israel, and could even end them.
• Sixth, if Trump is defeated, the Israel-US relationship could deteriorate. The new American administration may revert to the traditional US position that viewed the settlements as an obstacle to peace, withdrawing US approval for annexation and even reversing Trump’s policy on Jerusalem.
• Seventh and finally, the annexation idea poses an even greater threat from a domestic Israeli point of view. Such a step would bury the two-state solution, leaving the one state solution as the only option. The one-state idea would signal the demise of the vision of a Jewish and democratic state. Many are already arguing that the settlement enterprise has put a kibosh on the two-state idea, but if any hopes remain, annexation would be their kiss of death.
Such a move would also quash the belief, which many Israelis and Jews still hold, that Israel is a peace-loving state, seeking accommodation with the Palestinians. In fact, annexation would rip off the mask that Israeli leaders have worn for decades as leaders striving in good faith for a peaceful solution.
In light of all these considerations, annexation appears a hasty and mistaken decision. Israel’s leaders must ask themselves whether annexation is worth all these risks. The answer is a resounding “No.”
During the acute stage of the corona pandemic in Israel and throughout the world, leaders adopted decisions after consulting with health experts, realizing they lacked suitable tools to make decisions on their own. Those who did so were wrong and caused the deaths of many.
This begs the question of why Israel’s leaders do not discuss such momentous, fatal decisions as annexation with experts on the issue. To the best of my understanding, most experts, regardless of their ideological or political views, think annexation would be a grievous mistake. The new coalition would do well to listen to these voices rather than falling prey to messianic ideas.
The writer teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, and is a board member of Mitvim.
The article first appeared in Jerusalem Post