Susie Becher

Annexation is an open secret; recognition is the obvious response

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a press conference in Jerusalem in August 2023 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a press conference in Jerusalem in August 2023 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

On June 21st, the New York Times reported on a document published by Peace Now about a conference held by the Religious Zionism party at which Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich briefed the audience on administrative moves taken by the Israeli Government to implement annexation plans. The NYT report was titled “Israeli Official Describes Secret Government Bid to Cement Control of West Bank.” It claimed that Smotrich, whose remarks at the meeting were recorded by a Peace Now staffer, had been caught admitting that the government is engaged in “a stealthy effort to irreversibly change the way the territory is governed” without arousing an international uproar. Smotrich is heard saying that the government aims to prevent the division of the land and the establishment of a Palestinian state and that the way to accomplish this “is to develop settlements.“

In the recording, Smotrich explains that the government has engaged in intentional deception by allowing the Defense Ministry to remain involved in administration of the West Bank in order to “deflect international scrutiny” by creating the appearance that “the military is still at the heart of West Bank governance.” The aim, Smotrich said, is to make it “easier to swallow in the international and legal context,” so that Israel will not be charged with implementing annexation. In this regard, the NYT pointed out that the Israeli Government’s official position is that “the West Bank’s status remains open to negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders” but claimed that Smotrich’s statements “may make that posture harder to maintain.”

Portraying the Peace Now report as the disclosure of some clandestine government program is far from accurate, however. Although Smotrich speaks of a deliberate attempt at duplicity, the facts have long been out there for anyone who cares to look. With the occupation in its 57th year, one would be hard-pressed to make a credible case in defense of its temporariness, despite Netanyahu’s insistence that the status of the territories will ultimately be determined in direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The policy of creating “facts on the ground” to entrench Israel’s hold on the West Bank has been pursued for decades, as has the practice of expanding settlements in reaction to perceived affronts from the international community or to fatal terrorist attacks. The annexation taboo was broken in May 2020, when Netanyahu made it part of the coalition agreement he signed with Benny Gantz. A few months later, Israel signed the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain, supposedly receiving normalization with the Gulf states in exchange for aborting annexation, but Netanyahu quickly clarified that it had only been suspended and that the plans remain on the table. The primary thing that changed as normalization with additional Arab states progressed was Netanyahu’s rhetoric. Settlement expansion remained in full swing, but the word annexation was no longer bandied about.

Speaking at an event to mark the third anniversary of the Abraham Accords, UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba admitted that de facto annexation of the West Bank is well underway and “there’s very little that the UAE can do” to stop it. Peace Now’s own Hagit Ofran wrote that “Israel’s far-right government ministers are no longer hiding their power-drunk dreams,” but “what’s new in Smotrich’s plan is that his intentions are explicitly and openly placed on the table.” No, she was not writing about the recent recording; the quote is from an article Ofran published in Haaretz in May 2023, over a year ago.

If any doubts about the government’s annexation intentions remain, one need look no further than the guidelines of the current coalition, which declare that the Jewish people have an “exclusive and indisputable right” to the territory from the river to the sea and lay out the plans to transfer powers from the military in the West Bank to a civilian authority within the Defense Ministry which Smotrich would head. In November 2022, prominent Israeli journalist Barak Ravid wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that “moving the civil administration in the West Bank from Israeli ministry of defense to the ministry of finance will be a ‘soft annexation’ of the WB.” A policy paper on the 37th government’s guidelines published by several Israeli NGOs in January 2023 is introduced with the statement that “though formal annexation through the enactment of a law applying Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank is unlikely due to foreign policy considerations, the picture emerging from an examination of the various measures included in the agreements is one of annexation without an official declaration.”

Most of what one hears in the Smotrich recording is not news to anyone who has heard Netanyahu pat himself on the back for having prevented a Palestinian state and vow to continue to do so. Everything is there in black and white in the coalition guidelines and the public statements of the government ministers. And if the message is not sufficiently clear, one need merely look at the pattern of the red rooftops across the West Bank landscape to see that annexation is happening.

What is noteworthy is the disdain Smotrich shows for the international community and its ability to see what is right under its nose. The assumption that it is pulling the wool over the eyes of the world is where the government’s situation assessment goes awry. It is not that the United States and Europe do not see; it is that they do not act. True, in the wake of unrestrained settler violence in the West Bank, several countries have imposed sanctions on a small number of individuals or organizations. When one considers the scope of the settlement enterprise, however, and recognizes that it is in essence annexation of the occupied territories, it becomes clear that those measures fall very short of what is necessary.

In late June, the government approved the largest seizure of land in the occupied West Bank in more than three decades. In recent days, it announced plans to build some 6,000 new homes in the settlements and “legalize” five outposts in response to five countries’ recent recognition of the State of Palestine.  The EU reacted by condemning the decision “in the strongest possible terms” and calling it “a deliberate attempt at undermining peace efforts.” It is unfathomable that world leaders have not yet admitted the utter futility of decades of rebukes that have had no impact on Israeli settlement policy, no matter how harsh the language. And let us not forget that while eyes are currently on settlement in the West Bank, Smotrich and his ilk have made no secret of their dream of settling the Gaza Strip. If there was ever a need for decisive action, this is it.

The international community must stop speaking of saving the two-state solution and should do it! The United Nations Security Council should reconvene and declare its recognition of the State of Palestine within the June 1967 borders and grant it full membership in the United Nations. President Biden, currently under attack from both friend and foe, could forge his legacy with one simple “yes” vote. At this time, nothing could do more to cement two states as the solution to the conflict, confirm the inevitability of peace talks and create the framework, and grant Palestine parity of esteem in anticipation of the day when the two sides eventually sit down to negotiate.

About the Author
Susie Becher is Managing Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, a collaborative quarterly published in Jerusalem; is Communications Director of the Policy Working Group, a team of senior academics, former diplomats, human rights defenders, and media experts who advocate for an end to the occupation and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and serves on the Steering Committee of Zulat, an activist think tank advocating for human rights and equality in Israel.
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