Sometimes there a strategic rationale for a state to take costly actions in the short-term in order to achieve a long-term vision. Israel’s proposed annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank does not fit that paradigm. In fact, over the long-term it would challenge the country’s fundamental principles by bringing Israel closer to a “one-state reality” in which Israel loses either its democratic or its Jewish character. But there are still four people who can prevent this blunder from going forward.
The security risks to Israel from large-scale annexation include the potential to inflame dormant conflicts, thereby distracting Israel from more pressing threats. The reactions in the West Bank and Gaza would likely include unrest and terror, requiring the Israeli Defense Forces to engage in thwarting terror attacks, suppressing rocket fire, or quelling riots. Since Iran is currently attempting to stockpile precision weaponry along Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon while slowly creeping toward the nuclear threshold, diverting IDF resources and attention away from the Iranian threats in order to cope with the response to annexation could have dangerous long-term consequences for Israel’s national security. There is no small irony in Netanyahu, who has for years correctly sounded the alarm on the challenges posed by Iran, disrupting his own defense establishment’s ability to cope with them.
The potential economic costs of annexation are also significant, and they would be especially painful in light of the economic damage inflicted on Israel by COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown. As it stands, unemployment in Israel is dropping from its peak of 24% in April 2020, but it is still believed to be around four times its pre-outbreak rate. Meanwhile Israel’s largest trading partner, the European Union, has declared that it is considering punitive measures should Israel move forward with annexation. In addition, if Israel’s hostile neighbors, such as Hamas or Hezbollah, should seek to avenge annexation by instigating a round of fighting, the cost of a conflict would weigh heavily on already diminished government revenues. Beyond that, if annexation triggers a response that leads to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, then Israel will find itself responsible for the basic needs of millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank, draining the national coffers further.
The diplomatic price: Nearly unanimous international condemnation of annexation is expected, indicating considerable damage to Israel’s political standing as a result of annexation. While it is true that the leader of Israel’s most important ally and the world’s greatest superpower, the US, may support annexation, it is also worth considering how that could change after the US presidential elections in November 2020. Democratic contender Joe Biden has made his opposition to annexation clear – if he wins (which is looking quite possible at this point) then the number of countries that support Israel’s step would drop from one to zero. Biden could rescind recognition offered by the Trump administration, after all it is hardly unusual as of late for a U.S. president to reverse the policies of his predecessor (e.g. the Bush-Sharon letter and the Iran nuclear deal), and he may even decline to use America’s geopolitical weight to defend Israel from what seems an increasingly likely prosecution by the International Criminal Court on the issue of settlements. The idea that Israel now has a political “window of opportunity” to annex is a short-sighted fallacy that obscures the reality of a high-risk gamble which could conceivably result in a future Democratic administration initiating a harsh response.
Last but not least, annexation would damage Israel’s moral standing at home and abroad. Thus far, Israel has been the side to accept the terms of proposed peace agreements – as Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert have done – and the Palestinians have rejected them. Domestically, this historical truth provides Jerusalem with the peace of mind that we have done everything possible to avoid sending our sons to war. In addition, the IDF operates according to international law in contrast to the terror groups it fights against, and this provides Israel with greater legitimacy and room to maneuver when coping with security threats. Annexation is tantamount to initiating a crisis which weakens Israeli claims that it fights only because its overtures for peace have been rejected and that it does so according to international norms, undermining the legitimacy its actions.
However, the die of annexation is not yet cast. Four people can still prevent it from happening.
First, President Trump, if he would like “Peace to Prosperity” to be a peace plan rather than a cover for annexation, should seek to restrain Jerusalem’s inclinations to annex West Bank territory. Trump’s manifold actions demonstrating support for Israel provide him with the standing and leverage to demand that Prime Minister Netanyahu put his plans to extend Israeli sovereignty on hold. If he fails to do so, then the Arab states will lose whatever incentive they may have had to support the Trump plan.
Second, Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz is tasked with protecting Israeli citizens from the nuclear and conventional threats posed by Iran (mentioned above), and so he ought to ensure that resources are not unnecessarily diverted from those important missions. Because the Trump Administration seeks agreement on the issue between Israel’s two leading politicians in order to grant U.S. approval for annexation, Gantz’s word will be a deciding factor on whether this process goes forward.
Third, President Mahmoud Abbas was a party to the Palestinians’ rejection of earlier peace proposals, but if he would like to save the possibility of a future state for his people then he would be well-advised to halt annexation. Abbas can do so with a single phone call to Washington: By informing the Trump Administration that the PA is willing to negotiate with Israel in reference to earlier peace initiatives, including but not limited to Trump’s own “Peace to Prosperity,” Abbas would provide the White House with adequate reason to put the brakes on annexation plans.
Fourth, Prime Minister Netanyahu is leading Israel as it faces unprecedented security threats and a dismal economy, and he will likely make the country’s problems worse if he goes ahead with annexation. If Netanyahu is searching for his legacy as the longest serving Prime Minister of Israel, the dangers inherent in large-scale annexation indicate that he ought to keep looking. In contrast, initiating a policy to separate from the Palestinians and bring an end to the conflict, though it would be far more difficult and time consuming, would be a historical step for which future generations of Israelis would be grateful.
Israel’s goal should be to build and maintain a state that is democratic, Jewish, secure, and morally just. Taking steps that could further entangle us with the Palestinians, elicit a costly response, and give the coup de grâce to President Trump’s peace plan hardly seems to further any of those aims. Instead, Israel should seek to advance President Trump’s peace plan by calling for a return to the negotiating table. If Israel makes public overtures in good faith to end the conflict on reasonable terms and they are once more rebuffed by the Palestinians, then Israel will have greater legitimacy in seeking to demarcate its borders in a manner that is independent of a Palestinian veto but coordinated with a broad coalition of allies.