As the Palestinian State grows ever more remote, and there is a growing voice among Israelis to abandon the two-state option and annex the West Bank to Israel. The “annexationists” include thoughtful and levelheaded public figures among the political right, including former defense minister Moshe Arens, former Speaker of the Knesset Reuven (Rubi) Rivlin, MK Uri Ariel, MK Tzipi Hotovely, and journalist and columnist Uri Elitzur. In recent op-eds, interviews, and publications, they argue that a West Bank is preferable to having two states in the narrow land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, not only for ideological reasons but also for practical reasons as well.
Ever since Netanyahu’s successive right-wing governments embraced the two-state model, the disagreement between annexationists and the two-staters has become more significant than the traditional right-left distinction. It is a unilateral Israeli annexation, rather than one of the negotiated power-sharing futures imagined by Ian Lustick, that is the leading alternative being discussed among Israel’s Jewish politicians. It deserves careful consideration, even by those who strongly oppose it.
The idea of annexation of the West Bank to Israel must be distinguished from the idea of a bi-national state. Whereas scholars such as professors Ian Lustick and the late Tony Judt despair over the future of the Jewish state, the annexationists firmly believe that Israel will remain a Jewish state, as this is understood today, even after it absorbs a large number of Palestinians as citizens. The idea of annexation also differs from the “Jordanian Option” espoused by Aryeh Eldad and Binyamin (Benny) Elon, who propose to grant West Bank Palestinians mere rights of residency in their hometowns after annexation while providing them with Jordanian (or other) citizenship. By contrast, the annexationists are willing to grant West Bank Palestinians full Israeli citizenship and equal rights, and not to discriminate against them or harass them until they “depart voluntarily.” Annexation also differs from partial measures such as Naftali Bennett’s “tranquilizing plan,” since the annexationists view it as a permanent arrangement.
If annexation is the solution, then what is the problem? Both annexationists and two-staters agree that Israel pays a heavy price by prolonging the occupation, and suffer moral qualms over depriving Palestinians of their civil rights under Israeli control. Both camps are troubled by the “apartheid” accusation and the possibility that Israeli could find itself isolated in the world. Both camps also worry about the troublesome permanence of the temporary occupation, which undermines Israel’s democratic values and fails to safeguard Israel’s security in the long run.
Here the annexationists and the two-staters part ways.
The idea of annexation is meant, first and foremost, to prevent the dismantling of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and ensure that Jewish life in Judea and Samaria continues to grow and flourish. By contrast, proponents of the two-state solution realize that any negotiated agreement will entail the evacuation of thousands of settlers from their homes and end Jewish expansion in the West Bank, even if all of Jerusalem and the large settlement blocks remain under Israeli sovereignty.
The annexationists do not pretend to solve the problem of Palestinian national self-determination, and appear to deny that such a right exists. Granting Israeli citizenship to West Bank Palestinians is meant to remedy the indignity of their statelessness, but denies their aspirations for national independence.
Annexation also fails to address the problem of the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees outside the West Bank. This issue is only partially addressed in the positions of Israeli advocates of the two-state solution, who are willing to accept return of refugees only to the nascent Palestinian state. The annexationists call for dismantling the refugee camps and UNWRA. This, however, is an empty demand, since, by annexing the West Bank unilaterally, Israel will not be able to count on its neighbors’ cooperation in absorbing the Palestinian refugees within their own borders.
The sharpest disagreement between annexationists and two-staters is over which plan will do a better job of safeguarding Israel’s security and stability. Annexationists believe that a greater Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, even with a sizeable Palestinian Minority, will guarantee its citizen’s security better than a narrow-waisted Israel with an overwhelming Jewish majority alongside a potentially hostile Palestinian state. Part of this debate has to do with the disputed demographic figures of the West Bank population. The greater debate, however, revolves around predictions for the distant future. The annexationists are not blind to the inherent risks of their plan, but they implore Israelis to “stop being afraid” of the two-staters’ dire warning and to look for creative solutions to future challenges. However, until now, the annexationists have spent most of their efforts in persuading Israelis that the two-state solution is hopeless, rather than persuading them that an annexation of the West Bank is possible and desirable. Unlike the two-state solution, whose exact details have been exhaustively debated in negotiation rooms and private initiatives, the annexationists have yet to present a compelling and detailed vision of how to maintain a stable and secure Jewish state with a large Palestinian minority.
The devil, as always, is in the details.
The annexation of occupied territory is precluded by international law as it stands today. For an Israeli annexation of the West Bank lift the threat of international isolation, it will have to overcome the legal challenges to annexation and the old charge of “apartheid” by convincing its new Palestinian citizens and the rest of the world that a grant of Israeli citizenship is an adequate substitute for independent Palestinian nationhood and citizenship. For this argument to succeed, Israel will have to live up to its promise of full and equal rights as Israelis to newly annexed Palestinians. In practice, however, Israel will find it difficult to quickly naturalize 1.5 – 3 million West Bank Palestinians. MK Uri Ariel proposes that full Israeli citizenship will be conditioned upon passing a Hebrew proficiency and citizenship test and taking a loyalty oath after a five-year residency period. MK Tzipi Hotovely proposes granting Palestinians full citizenship rights gradually over several decades.
Conditional or delayed citizenship undermines the few positive aspects of the annexation idea. A long interim period before all Palestinians enjoy equal citizenship will certainly not be tranquil, and the uncertainty and despair during such a waiting period or conditional citizenship might once again turn a temporary condition of Palestinian statelessness into a permanent one. Besides equal rights, the annexationists fail to suggests ways for Palestinian nationality to be expressed within the Jewish state – a necessary component for annexation to be received as anything other than the outdated denial that “there is no Palestinian people”.
Annexation is meant to provide better security to Israel’s citizens. However, should intense strife erupt again, combating Palestinian armed opposition will be very different under Israeli police powers than under the laws of war. The permissible means of international armed conflict— weapons, rules of engagement, surveillance, and special intelligence capabilities—will no longer be at Israel’s disposal when combatting its own citizens. In times of serious crisis, Israel’s hands will be tied or it will have to abandon the principles of rule of law – both disastrous possibilities for Israel.
The annexationists squirm at the mention of the Gaza Strip. Previously staunch objectors of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, the annexationists no longer demand its return to Israel. Under their plan, Gaza will remain a hostile Palestinian quasi-state even after the annexation of the West Bank. To be fair, two-staters are equally unable to explain persuasively how an independent Palestine can be established without reconciliation between the rival Palestinian governments.
The annexationists believe that Israel will remain a Jewish state even after the absorption of a large Palestinian population. Uri Elitzur, for example, emphasizes that the demographic estimates of the West Bank population are disputed, and invariably relies on the lowest estimates in arguing for annexation. MK Uri Ariel contends that the prevailing low voter turnout among Israel’s Palestinians proves that the Jewish population will be able to maintain their overwhelming majority in the Knesset in the future, even when faced with a sizeable Palestinian minority. Some annexationists place high hopes in another mass immigration of Jews to Israel—perhaps a million or more according to MK Tzipi Hotovely—that will tip the balance again in the Jews’ favor. MK Uri Ariel goes so far as to proposes reducing the political power of the newly annexed Palestinians by creating a gerrymandered voting district system that will guarantee a Jewish majority in each district – a proposal likely to fail the scrutiny of the Israeli Supreme Court.
It is folly to expect Israel to remain unchanged as a Jewish state in the long run after a sizeable Palestinian population is annexed to it. The character of a Jewish state is not merely a question of its symbols, official languages, and public holidays. If the Knesset will include a large Palestinian faction, then every political decision will be subjected to the political give and take between Jewish and Palestinian citizens. The annexationists underestimate the political upheaval that will result when the rivalry between the Jewish majority and Palestinian minority will become the dominant schism within Israeli society. Even if Jews remain the majority in Israel – which is far from certain – the Zionist vision of a state where Jews are the sole masters of their destiny will be dimmed.
The annexationists realize that Israel will have to invest massive resources to close the wide economic gulf between wealthy Jewish Israel and poverty-stricken Palestinian Israel. How will a country that already struggles with the widest gaps between rich and poor in the western world absorb an additional extremely underdeveloped territory? MK Uri Ariel supposes that the added income from taxation from the new territories will be sufficient to close those gaps. Meanwhile let’s see that happen in Israel’s poorest towns, such as Betar Illit and Qalansuwa. Clearly, Israel will not be able to count on the international generosity shown towards an independent Palestine for its own plan to ameliorate the condition of its newly absorbed citizens.
And we haven’t even begun to consider other mysteries: Will the Palestinians be drafted to the Israeli army? What will be done with the security barrier? How will the Israeli bureaucracy cope with millions of new citizens, many of whom do not speak basic Hebrew? How will Israel contend with the history of conflict and Palestinian national aspirations and foster an Israeli civil identity among a suspicious and antagonistic population?
The annexationists must face the difficult questions if they wish to be taken seriously.