The paramount issue facing Israelis in 2017 is the shape of their country and, by extension, its fate. A combination of domestic, regional and international factors have come together to place the question of annexation squarely on the agenda. In an environment fraught with uncertainty at every turn, Israel finds itself today in a position that it can no longer avoid determining the physical — and hence ethical — parameters of its existence. Voices calling for the complete or partial expropriation of lands captured in 1967 are on the rise. So too are those (even within the government) that consider such a move a full-scale disaster. Indeed, any step in such a direction would be nothing short of suicidal. Beyond being immoral and illegal, it is also frankly impracticable: it threatens to spell the demise of Israel as conceived by its founders.
A variety of elements are responsible for forcing the question at this juncture. On the global level, UN Security Council Resolution 2334 — the culmination of years of frustration with Israel’s settlement expansion prompted by draft legislation designed to legitimate Jewish outposts constructed on private Palestinian lands — served notice to Israel that the international community would no longer countenance the settlement enterprise. In its eyes, it is in violation of international conventions and constitutes the key obstacle to the realization of a durable Israeli-Palestinian peace. The political and personal dynamics behind the timing of the resolution aside, its motives are incontestable: on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war and the commencement of Israeli rule over the territories captured at that time, a clear international consensus has emerged against any further Israeli foot-dragging on terminating the occupation.
Binyamin Netanyahu’s overreaction to the UN decision has only served to make this message even clearer. By lashing out against the Security Council (and especially the outgoing Obama administration), the prime minister essentially declared diplomatic war on the entire international community. The Christmas day parade of emissaries summoned for reprimands by the Israeli government could not but further alienate — not only Israel’s rivals, but also its closest friends. Tellingly, however, by insisting that outside pressure is unacceptable, Netanyahu himself shifted the onus directly to his home constituency (on the probably mistaken assumption that he can control the outcome).
As a result, on the domestic level, the door has been opened to a renewed push by Israel’s ultra-nationalists (spearheaded by Minister of Education Naftali Bennett of the Bayit Yehudi party, backed by his counterpart Avigdor Liberman of Israel Beyteinu, and echoed by the vast majority of Likud functionaries) to avail themselves of the opportunity to annex portions (if not all) of the West Bank. The bulk of the formal opposition (notably Yitzhak Herzog of the Zionist Camp and poll-leading Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid) has found itself caught between its condemnation of Security Council resolution 2334 and its dread of the repercussions of any unilateral Israeli action on the ground. And those still committed to a lasting Israeli-Palestinian agreement have raised the alarm, arguing that annexation is akin to self-destruction.
The most recent survey, conducted by Rafi Smith for Israel Radio just this past weekend, shows that 39 percent of the Israeli public supports a total annexation of the West Bank, 31% advocates annexation of the “settlement blocs” constructed to the west of the Green Line; and 31% remain committed to a two-state solution. These findings — interpreted by annexationists as a green light for assertive action and by their opponents as evidence of ongoing support for a full or modified two-state solution — have intensified discussions on the topic.
Both sides are pointing to the current climate of fluidity to buttress their position. The annexation-prone nationalists see the end of the Obama era, the impending presidency of Donald Trump, the weakening of the European Union following Brexit, and the ascendancy of Russian power in the region as an opportunity to realize their (often divinely-sanctioned) right to sovereignty over the greater Land of Israel. The adherents of a democratic (and predominantly Jewish) Israel at peace with its neighbors insist that the shifting ground locally, regionally, and globally dictates the formulation of a lucid — practically doable and normatively justifiable — vision for the country. The undecided remain, in the meantime, in their very uncertain — and exceedingly temporary — comfort zone.
This situation cannot last much longer, since all sides are beginning to grasp that the relative stability they have become accustomed to will not last beyond the coming year. The growing conventional wisdom is that neither Netanyahu (primarily because of his own policy ambiguities and his increasingly precarious position in light of mounting suspicions of embezzlement and breach of trust) nor Abbas (mostly because of his age) will remain in power for much longer.
The implications of this insight differ, however. Those favoring expropriation of portions or all of the West Bank presume that the present right-wing hegemony is here to stay. The adoption of legislation annexing a part of the West Bank (in the first instance probably Ma ‘ale Adumim) will pave the way for broader acquisitions down the line. Those opposed to such moves assume that a change at the top is in the making and that appropriate guidelines for whoever takes over must be issued now. In either event, given the indeterminate domestic and external balance of forces, there is a growing realization that the luxury of procrastination no longer exists.
As the annexationist discourse is gaining traction, the range of choice is narrowing dramatically. Any action in the direction of further annexation (Trump’s promise to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem and “to protect Israel’s back” notwithstanding) will unleash an international furor the likes of which Israel has not known since its very inception. It will also create a chasm between Israel and the bulk of the Jewish community abroad, while aggravating unrest on the ground. A decision to reject annexation may begin the long road to resurrecting Israel’s global standing, but it will not pass muster with the minority of Israeli citizens who wield immense political power and defy such a move. They will do everything possible — including resort to violence — to prevent its implementation. Any further foot-dragging will keep Israel suspended precariously between a rock and a hard place. Inaction, therefore, is simply not a choice.
This year every single Israeli will be compelled to weigh in on the preferred contours (and by implication, identity) of the state. The choices are stark, but unavoidable. Today, a roughly equal number of Palestinians and Israelis reside in the land, which must be shared between the two peoples. The alternatives are either to opt for continued Israeli overrule (directly or indirectly) along with the abhorrent discrimination and institutionalized inequality it entails, or to align with the democratic and Jewish norms of tolerance and respect for the other by firmly and unequivocally rejecting such policies. This option is the only way to set in motion the resumption of negotiations aimed at reaching an agreement on ending the occupation.
For almost 50 years, the internal debate about the future of the territories has remained essentially unchanged (even if in the minds of many Israelis the feasibility and prospects of the various alternatives have altered). Delaying or circumventing a clear decision is a vote in favor of international isolation and internal implosion. Anyone who really cares about Israel’s mission of building a just society in the homeland of the Jewish people must do everything possible to suspend further settlement expansion and prevent any form of annexation. This is the only way to assure Israel’s ongoing sustainability — in every sense of the term — in the future.