Current Israeli deliberations over the future of the West Bank, especially balancing the competing values of security, historical connection, demography and the prevention of diplomatic isolation, is an extension of a 50-year long argument.
Dennis Ross and David Makovsky’s book Be Strong and of Good Courage describes a ministerial debate soon after the end of the 6 Day War. Some suggested partial withdrawal could assuage demographic concerns if linked to peace with Jordan. Menachem Begin called for the Jewish state to declare the entirety of the land belonged to Israel. Prime Minister Eshkol worried annexation would ultimately lead to the Jews becoming a minority. Consensus was reached however on the importance of the Jordan River serving as Israel’s eastern border, although questions remained over whether as a ‘security border’ or ‘political border’.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s promise to annex parts of the West Bank beginning July has raised similar disagreements. Domestic opponents believe it may cause the collapse of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the IDF being pulled back into Palestinian cities. A report by Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS) warns annexation will undermine peace treaties and security coordination with Egypt and Jordan. Senior economists estimate the annual financial cost of Israel retaking the West Bank (following the collapse of the PA) at NIS 52 billion.
In the hierarchy of respected opinions, Israeli security officials are near, if not at, the top. So why have CIS and others struggled to make inroads in government policy? One reason is that while their recommendations significantly differ from the annexationists, their diagnosis of the problem is broadly similar. Neither side believe the Palestinian National Movement has the will or the capacity to sign a final status agreement.
Those on the centre-left continue to warn of the moral, diplomatic and demographic dangers of continued occupation. They suggest keeping the two state solution window open. But the word peace has been replaced in the Israeli lexicon by ‘political process’ or ‘separation’. In three election cycles, peace was hardly uttered.
Even amongst veteran members of the peace camp hopes for a rosy future with the Palestinians have wavered. The late Amos Oz described the peace camp as working towards a conclusion along the lines of a Chekhovian (rather than Shakespearean) tragedy – one in which the sides are unhappy, bitter, disillusioned and melancholy. This analysis is more realistic than those voiced during the Oslo years. But arguing Israeli society needs to make deep territorial and emotional concessions just to receive a Chekhovian solution is unlikely to be a big vote winner.
If Israelis feel that the peace component of the ‘land for peace’ package enshrined in UN Resolutions has eroded, it’s unsurprising they’re less willing to make concessions on the land part. After all, ‘land to prevent a binational reality’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.
The policy vacuum caused by the decline of this paradigm has been utilised by the Sovereignty Movement to promote its own maximalist alternative. When coupled with the Trump plan and public consensus on controlling the Jordan Valley, a policy that for years languished on the periphery has become mainstreamed.
But there is an additional reason to why annexation-talk has taken centre stage, namely Netanyahu identifying it as a vote winner during close elections.
Netanyahu’s political positions on the Palestinian issue are hard to pin down, as is determining whether he is an ideologue or opportunist. He opposed the Oslo Accords, but transferred territory to Palestinian control. As veteran political journalist Amnon Abramovich describes, ‘he supported [Gaza Disengagement] in the Government and Knesset but opposed it in corridors and television studios.’ Netanyahu rejects a return to the 1967 ‘Auschwitz borders’ yet was open to a framework that required significant withdrawal from the West Bank. His frantic pre-election annexation promises contrast with having done nothing during the last decade to advance it.
When it comes to the West Bank, Netanyahu is cautious and has generally been guided more by security concerns than religious ones. So why extend sovereignty when the current situation – in which the IDF already has de-facto control over the entire area – generates fewer risks of conflagration?
After so long in power, Netanyahu has expanded Henry Kissinger’s maxim that ‘Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics’ to include his personal political survival. The country’s national interest is thus whatever is necessary for him to stay in power – regardless of whether that’s extending sovereignty to settlements or being open to evacuating them. Journalist Ben Caspit, author of The Netanyahu Years told Fathom that ‘Netanyahu’s priority is … the feeling that “I am essential to the security and continued existence of Israel”… There isn’t any specific plan, only his belief that only he is able to manoeuvre the ship to safety at any given moment’. Caspit adds: ‘The true Bibi is the one who can remain in power in order to keep the people of Israel safe.’ As his corruption trial begins, this has become even more fundamental.
If, as UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said, a week is a long time in politics, then much can happen before July. Yet while decisions in DC, Ramallah and Amman may have some influence, the determining factor will likely ultimately be found in Jerusalem, based on one man’s calculation of how it can help or hinder him in an ongoing fight for survival.