The debate is heating up among American Jews about a possible Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank. A familiar pattern is emerging with right-wingers offering unqualified support, left-wingers predicting imminent catastrophe, and centrists saying little for fear of alienating the right and the left. Here’s my take on where we are.
- Israel is not planning on annexing the entire West Bank
There is no sign Israel plans to annex all the West Bank.
While some have suggested that Israel might annex all of Israel-controlled Area C–61 percent of the West Bank–such a move would render all but impossible a future contiguous Palestinian state and potentially anger even Israel’s closest allies. This scenario is unlikely.
Another, more likely possibility is that the Israeli government would extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley, the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements and Maale Adumim, constituting about 30 percent of the territory. This would leave little territory for future negotiations with the Palestinians and may go further than the Trump Administration would support at this point in time.
Still more likely Israel would extend its sovereignty to some smaller percentage of the above (10 percent or less), likely without the Jordan Valley, which constitutes 20 percent of the territory.
- Israel may not move forward with annexation plans
Numerous times in recent years Israel was supposedly on the verge of dealing a fatal blow to democracy or peace, only to pull back. This, too, could be a false alarm.
The proposed Israeli Annexation was never going to happen unless the Trump Administration agreed to it. Israeli policy makers felt they had a window of opportunity to solidify the country’s hold on this territory, which would close after this Administration leaves office. In fact, some Israeli policymakers argue that strengthening Israel’s claim to these territories would make future peace negotiations more likely to produce a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians that Israel could live with.
However, a recent visit to Israel by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in which talks were held with senior Israeli government officials across the spectrum, may well have delayed any such action. The US government has an interest in the Arab world and the Palestinian Authority taking the Trump peace plan seriously, and may worry that Israeli unilateral actions might kill off future negotiations on the plan.
- If Israel does move head, it could set off a chain reaction in Israel, the Middle East and the US
Critics of annexation argue that even if Israel only annexes a small percent of the territory there still could be damaging repercussions in the region. The very discussion of annexation was enough for the Palestinian Authority to announce its ending security cooperation with Israel. Arab countries in the Gulf and Jordan have also warned about potential diplomatic fallout. Such a move could further exacerbate tensions with Iran. The outcry could affect Israel’s relationship with Europe, its largest trade partner.
Some in Israel and the US worry that any annexation will set a precedent for further unilateral steps. It may start with 5 percent of the territory but not end there.
Some in the American Jewish community worry that a move could further undermine two party support for Israel and might energize and expand the BDS movement and give rise to broader efforts to isolate the Jewish state.
- A limited move does not necessarily preclude a two state solution
Extending its sovereignty to 5, 10 or even 30 percent of the territory would not, at least in theory, make a two-state solution infeasible. These territories, except for the Jordan Valley, were always understood to remain in Israel’s hands permanently under any foreseeable peace deal. But such a move certainly could complicate the search for peace and Israel’s standing in the world.
David Bernstein is President and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein