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Annexation – at what cost?

The half-baked idea would formalize a one state arrangement and render Israel un-Jewish and un-democratic
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv, on September 5, 2018. (Flash90)
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv, on September 5, 2018. (Flash90)

Some bad ideas refuse to stay down. Last week Israeli Justice Minister and Jewish Home member Ayelet Shaked breathed new life into one such misguided proposal. Speaking to journalists in Jerusalem, Shaked put forth her recommendation for annexing Area C of the West Bank to Israel and siphoning off the rest of the territory in a confederation with Jordan and Gaza. She even made the bizarre suggestion that the Palestinians might accept such an arrangement sometime in the future, a comment that could only have been informed by detachment from reality or unapologetic dishonesty.

Shaked’s talking points are a reflection of the deceptively named “stability plan” marketed since 2012 by her party’s leader, Education and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, which focuses on absorption of Area C by Israel. Of course, this would produce anything but stability.

Bennett’s proposal, which Shaked parroted, plays up the demography of the West Bank while ignoring geography. To wit, there is no such thing as “partial annexation,” despite what Jewish Home might say. While it is true, as pro-annexation pundits like to point out, that an overwhelming majority of Palestinians live in Areas A and B (now under Palestinian Authority administration), they fail to note that those sections of the West Bank constitute a disconnected archipelago of territorial enclaves. Merging Area C – 60 percent of West Bank land – with Israel would leave 169 foreign islands in a sea of Israeli territory, each one with its own border which Israel would have to secure. Without the PA, and as these boundaries prove difficult to secure, Areas A and B are liable to fall under effective Israeli control too.

The Palestinian Authority cannot survive Israel’s annexation of Area C, as this definitively closes the door on a future two-state solution. Perhaps that’s Bennett and Shaked’s intention. Whatever the case, they owe it to the Israeli public, as well as to Israel’s patrons in Washington, to come clean about the costs of the PA’s collapse that will follow Israeli annexation of the majority of the West Bank. Covering for public services currently handled by the PA means Israel footing a $2.35 billion bill annually, though the total could be as much as $14.9 billion as Israel is compelled to fill the vacuum left by the Palestinian Authority in other parts of the West Bank. Whereas international donors have helped support humanitarian assistance and institution-building in support of a two-state solution, Israel can expect little sympathy or help from the rest of the world if it deviates so sharply from a mutual territorial compromise.

This doesn’t even begin to touch security. When the PA folds, it will leave Israel without a reliable counterterrorist partner in the Palestinian Territories, leaving the IDF as the police arm of an undemocratic regime across all of the West Bank in perpetuity, including in Palestinian cities. The United States has long financed the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, whose professionalization after the Second Intifada represents a rare success story in a conflict often defined by failed initiatives. American aid to the PASF even survived the Trump administration’s punitive cuts to all other kinds of assistance in the West Bank and Gaza. But this was all built on the promise that one day Palestinians would achieve real sovereignty. Annexation would squander a major U.S. investment and endanger Israelis, as former PASF members abandon their mission, or worse, turn their guns against Israel and rival Palestinian factions.

It’s also detrimental to American and Israeli interests for a high-ranking cabinet minister like Ayelet Shaked to be playing fast and loose with the stability of Jordan, an important ally. Jordan renounced claims to the West Bank thirty years ago and has not occupied that area for over half a century. It takes an astounding lack of self-awareness to openly discuss something that would amount to completely reconfiguring the Jordanian state. Imagine the reaction if the U.S. secretary of state proposed dismantling the government of a trusted regional partner.

The Hashemite Kingdom’s relations with Israel are sensitive enough without added pressure. It was just last month that Amman decided not to renew the leases on two small territories loaned to Israel under the 1994 peace treaty, likely a token gesture to an anti-Israel public.

Loose talk of a confederation may force the Jordanian authorities’ hand, compelling them to take a harder line on Israel in order to shore up their standing with the public and avert a collapse. Shaked and Bennett like to admonish audiences about looming threats on Israel’s eastern border, but that frontier is fairly calm, largely thanks to the durability of the Jordanian government. But the so-called “stability plan” could invite the very instability annexationists warn of.

Of course, there are alternatives. Earlier this year, PA President Mahmoud Abbas even expressed cautious acceptance of a loose confederation but only in the context of a two-state solution that provides for an independent Palestine, not as a means of circumventing it — though, notably, Jordan remains cool to the idea.

Despite rhetorical gymnastics from the Israeli right about partial annexation, there are really only two conclusions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Annexation will formalize a one state arrangement — undemocratic and hobbled by an intractable occupation, with all the attendant costs. Two states would extricate Israel from this dilemma, allowing it to retain its Jewish and democratic character and reach sustainable security understandings with its neighbors. Without advocating steps to preserve the latter outcome, unscrupulous politicians will continue to pedal half-baked ideas like the “stability plan.”

Ayelet Shaked, Naftali Bennett and those who think like them are right to worry about Israel’s security. However, in circulating annexation plans they gloss over (or worse, deliberately hide) the likely ramifications of their proposals, which threaten to erode Israelis’ safety, undermine the state’s economy, and undo its democracy while also imperiling relationships with important U.S. allies in the Arab world. What nationalist or religious aspiration could justify so enormous a cost?

About the Author
David A. Halperin is executive director of the Israel Policy Forum.
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