The most momentous issue facing the new government in Israel today – notwithstanding the coronavirus-induced crisis and the high drama of the opening of criminal proceedings against a sitting prime minister – is whether it will annex portions of the West Bank in the coming months. This is no longer a hypothetical question. Within the very narrow 120-day window between the first day of July and the beginning of November, a beleaguered Benjamin Netanyahu has it in his power to determine the answer – and in the process decide Israel’s character, the fate of the Palestinians and the contours of the Middle East for years to come.
The current Israeli leadership is now caught between its stated desire to take advantage of the rare opportunity presented at this time to impose Israeli law (as annexation is euphemistically termed) on portions of the West Bank now and the advisability of doing so at this juncture. The option of the extension of Israeli sovereignty to these areas carries immense risks while holding, in the eyes of its proponents, extraordinary historical returns. It is impossible to exaggerate the monumental consequences of how this dilemma plays out for all involved in one of the most prolonged and intractable conflicts of these times.
The roots of the present conundrum go back to 1967, when the possibility of formal annexation was first put on Israel’s agenda and implemented with the official extension of sovereignty over East Jerusalem and its environs immediately after the end of the Six-Day war. During the 53 years that have elapsed since, all Israeli governments have encouraged Jewish settlement beyond the Green Line. Until recently, however, as the process of effective Israeli control over the West Bank and its Palestinian population has systematically deepened, no moves were made to formally annex these territories.
All this changed with the reelection of Benjamin Netanyahu for a fourth term and Donald Trump’s presidential victory in 2015. The new occupant of the White House is the only American president to openly support the expansion of Israeli settlements, to diverge from the two-state solution advocated by his predecessors, to recognize Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the State of Israel, and to propose unilateral annexation as part of an overall plan to promote a new Israeli-Palestinian reality in the region (See “From Peace to Prosperity,” commonly known as “The Deal of the Century”), promulgated at the end of January, 2020. These steps have been an outgrowth of close coordination between Washington and Jerusalem.
Netanyahu, in turn, has ratcheted up his commitment to outright annexation. He ensured that his electoral promises would be enshrined in the coalition agreement signed with his erstwhile opponent, Benny Gantz, signed on April 20, 2020. Prompted by immediate political concerns (in an attempt to smooth the ruffled feathers of many disgruntled Likud backbenchers and to somewhat mollify his opposition on the right) and by personal considerations (the desire to leave a lasting legacy just as the judicial proceedings he faces threaten to blot his record), he has left no doubt about his intentions.
At the swearing-in ceremony of the new two-headed government barely a week ago, the fifth-term prime stated decidedly: “Here is the truth: these tracts of land are regions where the Jewish nation was born and grew. It’s time to apply Israeli law to them and write another glorious chapter in the annals of Zionism.” He has received a tremendous boost from the present occupant of the White House, who himself faces an uphill with an uphill battle in his quest for a second term and needs to consolidate his shaky political base by appealing to over 60 million Evangelical Christians who view Jewish sovereignty over the Holy Land as the first step to redemption.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was dispatched outside of the confines of the corona-ridden United States for the first time in two months to meet with Netanyahu, Gantz and incoming Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi (delaying their installation by 24 hours). His message was unambiguous (the future of the West Bank at this stage is in Israel’s hands), just as the sub-text resonated loud and clear (the ultimate status should be ironed out with the Palestinians). This way the Trump administration can appear to appease its core electorate while providing itself with deniability should the need arise (explaining why Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been instructed to lobby Republican lawmakers to support an annexation move now).
Thus, a very small window of opportunity has been opened, lasting barely for the next five months. The unilateral annexation train – involving the settlement blocs expected to come under Israeli jurisdiction in a future agreement with the Palestinians, (4%-10% of the area), the Jordan Valley (17% of the West Bank), all Jewish settlements across the Green Line (6%-8%), or, in the most radical scenario, a combination of all of these in the form of the totality of area C, which constitutes up to 60% of the territory of the West Bank beyond Jerusalem) – has left the station.
There is, however, an enormous gap between the innate desire to annex and the built-in risks of actually doing so. Within his own government, Netanyahu must deal not only with his far more cautious Blue-White coalition partners, but also with a less than enthusiastic defense establishment which is wary of the adverse security effects of such a move in the Palestinian territories and along Israel’s borders.
The opposition on the center-left is making it clear that it views such a unilateral move as nothing short of an historical disaster. Many Israelis are expressing concern over the illegality of annexationist measures under international law, its adverse impact on Israel’s already heavily floundering democracy and, tellingly, on its Jewish character. They are openly questioning not only its fundamental morality, but also its advisability, given rising concerns over the escalation of violence at home and the potentially alarming effects of such a step on the entire network of Israel’s of regional and international relations (and especially on its future ties with the United States and Jewish communities abroad). At home, then, annexationist tendencies are amplifying internal divisions and fomenting growing friction.
These apprehensions are not baseless. The prospect of an Israeli unilateral takeover of Palestinian lands in the West Bank has, for the first time in many years, magnified the urgency of the Israeli-Palestinian question on the global agenda, despite the fact that the attention of most countries, totally absorbed with managing COVID-19 and its socioeconomic aftereffects, seemed to be directed elsewhere. There is now almost complete unanimity against such a move. The Palestinian Authority has abrogated its agreements with Israel and the United States and severed security coordination. Jordan has threatened to reassess its peace treaty with Israel; Egypt is reassessing its ties with Israel. The Arab League has warned of the regional implications of such a move. Most member states of the European Community have followed suit. Joe Biden, the Democratic Party candidate for President, has stated unequivocally that he views such a unilateral move as a blow to the two-state solution and to the peace process. Beyond widespread verbal admonitions, preparations are now being made to follow through with concrete actions – ranging from censures, reexamination of cooperation agreements, economic sanctions, and strong diplomatic measures. This time, with the stake so high, these do not have the ring of empty threats.
What, under these circumstances, will prevail: the desire to move forward with an irreversible step for posterity, or the fear of the (still unknown) reactions such a move will invoke? Some Israelis, on the far right, are pushing for forbearance at this crossroads. The argue – most notably through the Settlers’ (Yesha) Council – for the maintenance of the status quo, which they see as less confining than the Trump provisions and far more conducive to the steady process of creeping annexation, now that the new Arrangements Law automatically legalizes past grabs of Palestinian lands. From their vantage point, the present situation allows for increased settlement expansion, broader Israeli control over the area, and may have the added advantage of preempting the construction of a Palestinian state down the line. Its main drawback is that it does not protect Israel from the specter of reversal should some future agreement be signed with the Palestinians. This position serves as a timely reminder that annexation comes in different forms. It does not necessarily require proactive initiatives.
It is precisely for this reason that many pundits are suggesting that Benjamin Netanyahu the statesman, known for his undue caution on such matters, will not risk alienating the government’s partners at home and abroad at this sensitive time, and will hold back on proactive moves. The alternative, however, is equally plausible: Netanyahu the person, fighting for his political life and reputation, may be propelled by different motives, opting to diverge from past patterns in order to secure one major achievement before it is too late. What will happen depends on how Benjamin Netanyahu resolves the tug of war he is undoubtedly conducting between his own personal impulses and his responsibility to safeguard the interests of the State of Israel.
There is a symbiotic relationship between the Netanyahu trial and the prospects for annexation. Given the Prime Minister’s past record and present predicament, it is likely that he will choose to carry out one, symbolic, act of annexation this summer.
What is not in doubt is that any annexation – either formal or informal – transforms the rules of the game. It calls for a decisive response against all its various forms, linking changes on the ground to an overall process designed to achieve a mutually-acceptable agreement that protects the just rights of Israelis and Palestinians in the future. This is the only constructive response to annexation and its pernicious byproducts for Israel and its neighbors.