The recent headlines about Israel have blared the word “annexation,” often with a dire warning of the local, regional, and global consequences were Israel to formally adopt a chunk of territory in the West Bank known as the Jordan Valley. What does this mean? Why is everyone upset? Why should we care? Let me break down the basics. Important caveat: I’m just going to give you the baseline, here. There’s enough nuance to keep us busy for hundreds of hours, so let’s stick to the big picture.
What is annexation? And what’s there to be annexed?
Annexation is when a country adopts a territory (often one that is disputed) as its own. It replaces temporary military rule with the full weight of the state: politically, legally, administratively. The annexed territory becomes a full part of the country. Israel is proposing to annex a section of the West Bank, called the Jordan Valley, located along the west side of the Jordan River. This represents around 20-30% of the total area of the West Bank. The Jordan Valley is mostly populated by Jews, with a small number of Palestinian villages. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has also suggested annexing all Jewish settlements throughout the entire West Bank. As of now, no official map has been drawn up by Israel, so it’s hard to say exactly what the government would actually annex.
Why is Israel talking about annexation now?
Donald Trump’s “MidEast Peace Plan” released by the U.S. government in January, 2020, allows Israel to annex portions of the West Bank in exchange for recognizing a future Palestinian state to be declared on all the remaining territory of the West Bank that Israel doesn’t annex (depending on how you count, about 70% of the existing West Bank would be for a Palestinian state). The Israeli government previously announced that, beginning on July 1, 2020, they would start moving in that direction; however, as of mid-July, the government under Netanyahu has not yet acted. A two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — in which a Palestinian state would be created alongside the already-established State of Israel — is official U.S. policy, and Trump’s plan is yet another effort to push that solution along.
But wait. Why isn’t this area officially Israel already? And isn’t the West Bank Palestinian land?
Quick primer: the entire region known as Palestine (roughly today’s Israel, plus the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as some other places) has changed hands a number of times. For 400 years Palestine was ruled by the Ottoman Empire (which was Turkish, not Arab). In 1918 Palestine was taken over by the British as a temporary colony. Then in 1947 the United Nations voted to separate Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish states starting on May 14,1948. That day the British left Palestine and the Jewish state — Israel — was established. So why not the Arab state? Because 1) there was no Palestinian-Arab government-in-waiting to start operating a state the way the Jews had, and 2) it was mostly because the Arab countries’ plan was to destroy this brand-new Israel state, kill all the Jews, and take over all the territory for themselves. The Arab countries invaded as planned and that war lasted a year, until 1949, when a cease-fire was declared. So in 1949, the territory that was supposed to be for an independent Arab state had instead been taken over by Israel, Egypt (which took the Gaza Strip), Jordan (took the West Bank and East Jerusalem), and Syria (took the Golan Heights).
Fast forward to 1967. Another war was fought between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and in this war Israel captured both Gaza and the West Bank, as well as other territory. These areas were then occupied by the Israeli military with the intention that the land would be given back to the Arabs in exchange for a peace treaty. For various reasons those treaties never happened, so Israel has held on to the land. In 2005 Israel decided to leave Gaza unilaterally, without any kind of agreement with the Palestinians, but they still (mostly) occupy the West Bank.
Confused? Good, welcome to the Middle East.
So there has never been a Palestinian state. The West Bank was first Ottoman, then British, than Jordanian, and now a mix between Palestinian and Israel, under overall Israeli military control. After 1967 Israel began allowing Jewish settlers to build small towns and then larger cities within the West Bank (the “settlements”), creating the patchwork mess today in which Jews and Palestinians live right next to each other, but on separate land under separate systems of government, all mostly controlled by the Israeli military.
So why is annexation so controversial?
The territory that Israel might propose to annex is seen by many to be part of the future Palestinian state. In annexing the Jordan Valley and the Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank, Israel would be taking over a huge chunk of land meant for the Palestinians, making their future state much smaller, and more territorially-confusing. It could also create a scenario in which Jews and Palestinians living on the annexed territory have separate systems of government, in which Palestinians might be unable to vote in Israeli elections and would not be equal citizens to their Jewish neighbors: what many see as an unjust, even apartheid-like, system. There has been widespread condemnation from around the world against such a possible scenario, which is why Israel has yet to go through with it.
Okay…so why would Israel go through with annexation?
Politics, mostly. Prime Minister Netanyahu has fought three elections in the last year and a half, and is also facing a trial for corruption. He has been beset by political attacks and comes across as weakened. He needs the support of his right-wing base to stay in power. That base predominantly supports annexation and is opposed to a Palestinian state. He has a history of making promises to his right-wing base whenever he faces political difficulty, but he usually doesn’t fully follow through. Now, though, he has the support of the United States government, which was previously against annexation. So between Trump and the demands of his base, Netanyahu has a strong incentive to push for annexation.
So what’s the big picture then?
Many Israelis are frustrated by years of Palestinian rejection of efforts to negotiate an agreement. Israelis see that time and again they have offered nearly everything that the Palestinians wanted to create a state—including granting them nearly all of the West Bank land—but those peace deals have always been rejected, and then usually followed by violence. So, many Israelis see no end to the conflict and no “partner for peace” on the Palestinian side. That situation, plus support from the United States, gives an opening for the Israeli right-wing to push for annexation.
But here’s the thing: most Israelis are in the political center, and hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously:
- For the sake of Israel’s future, we have to stop occupying the Palestinians and leave as much as of the West Bank as we can, and,
- Because of terrorism and violence from the Palestinians, we can’t possibly leave the West Bank.
That is the paradox most of Israel lives with: we have to leave the West Bank. We can’t leave the West Bank. The political center is leery of tipping the balance in one direction or the other. They don’t want to get too far down the road of either leaving the West Bank entirely or staying there forever. Annexation seems a big tilt towards the latter. So will it happen? In the Middle East all things are possible and things change quickly. Time will tell.