The Looming Annexation in the West Bank

The annexation of parts of the West Bank is looming in many of the senses connoted by that adjective:

  • The prospective political move, even if the first step is limited, is considered massive by both supporters and opponents of the move;
  • The announced timing for the initiative for 1 July is imminent but it may be just a symbolic declaration;
  • Annexation is as yet indistinct in at least three ways:

a) Extending sovereignty, not annexation, is promised; there is a debate over whether the definitions of each of the terms is a distinction without a difference; much of the discussion has been about extending Israeli sovereignty, that is, extending Israeli law to those areas of the West Bank where Jews live to displace the current mixture of military, Jordanian and Ottoman law; annexation is about defining borders not just extending the rule of law [see Einat Wilf in the current issue of Mosaic where he argues that annexation in the West Bank is about fixing the final borders of Israel]; in any case, extending sovereignty may be a final step towards annexation, but is not identical to it;

b) The U.S. has not submitted its final map for its peace plan that is intimately intertwined with the annexation prospect;

c) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has himself not presented his final proposed map to his political leadership partner, Benny Gantz, and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gabi Ashkenazi;

  • The annexation proposal has become politically magnified as well as threatening, not only to parts of the Western and most of the Arab world, but also to Benny Gantz himself as Netanyahu has allowed rumours to circulate that he will dissolve the partnership on one pretext or another, call an early election and ignore the agreement that, if he does call an election prematurely, Benny Gantz will become Interim Prime Minister, this at a time when Netanyahu and the Likud are more popular than ever before;
  • Though most of the defense and intelligence leadership, both existing and retired, seem to be convinced that going ahead with annexation in any of its proposed forms is a real and unnecessary security risk, both Gabi Ashkenazi, a former Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from 2007 to 2011, and Benny Gantz, the current Defence Minister, Alternate Prime Minister and Chief of General Staff of the IDF from 2011 to 2015, appear to support some version of annexation; 
  • The PA may not survive past September;
  • The proposal, for a number of reasons, including the phenomenal convolutions of any of the interim maps, is akin to viewing something through a glass darkly.

We know that 1 July is not a firm date. We know that if and when the annexation or extension of sovereignty proposal is submitted to the Knesset, it may propose implementation in stages. We know that the proposal may initially include only the large Jewish populated areas of the West Bank, namely only those, like Ma’ale Adumin, near Jerusalem, but perhaps also Gush Etzion and Ariel and even Modi’in Ilit and Givat Ze’ev, that is, the urban areas with most of the Jewish population in the West Bank. Blue and White Knesset members have tried to promote a staged annexation along these lines. Further, Netanyahu may limit the extension of Israeli law and sovereignty since the U.S. reputedly will only support annexation if Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz agrees with the initiative which he now appears to have done.

To make things even more complicated, the Yesha Council of the settlers (Mo’etzet Yesha, in Hebrew the acronym for Yehuda Shomron, Aza – Judea, Samaria and Gaza Council – the umbrella organization of municipal councils of the West Bank Jewish settlements) is busy amending the Trump peace plan with alternative road routes that would not isolate the Jewish settlements. In other words, we know how amorphous the proposed political action is at the same time how threatening it appears even if it only takes place in stages. Whatever the details of the plan, a slippery slope is created when the principle opposing a unilateral move by either side is breached.

The threats come from many directions, including the U.S. where the Democrats in the House of Representatives are working on a resolution to unanimously condemn such a move, meaning that Israel will have an opponent to annexation in the White House if Joe Biden is elected in November. Or is that so clear? For one, Biden will be preoccupied with other issues of central concern to the U.S. and he might want to balance a rapprochement with Iran on the nuclear deal with a softer voice on the rights of the Palestinians.  Or he might find that taking on the Saudis over the war in Yemen leaves little diplomatic and political capital available for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The disposition to avoid being tough on Israel goes back decades. Biden declared himself a Zionist almost thirty years ago, even though first elected in a state that was less than 1% Jewish. He has always supported direct negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis and mostly blamed the Palestinians for the failures in those negotiations. He criticized the Goldstone Report on Gaza and insisted on Israel’s right to defend itself from rockets from Gaza.  The general line in the Democratic Party is to defend Israel’s right to exist and to self-defence while diplomatically supporting Palestinian rights to self-determination and opposing, to different degrees, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Joe Biden is unlikely to offer any creative innovation – if that is possible – on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but will continue to pay lip service to an increasingly unlikelihood of the older version of a two-state solution and verbally oppose annexation. U.S.-Israeli mutual interests go too deep and include defence, support for Israel as a democratic state, intelligence cooperation, joint training and technology sharing. Biden is not likely to innovate, though he may and he could, invite greater involvement by the international community, particularly the EU, Israel’s largest trading partner. The bottom line is that annexation for its critics will not enhance Israeli security but will, on the contrary, undermine it. Shany Mor in Mosaic argues that pursuing annexation means missing other critical opportunities, particularly with Arab states.

The real political policy conflict in America on Israel/Palestine is being fought on the local level between progressive and moderate Democrats. The most prominent fight is between Elliot Engel, a 16-term Democratic congressman and chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, versus a strong challenger, Bronx middle school principal Jamaal Bowman. As of this morning, Engel appears to have lost. From the other direction, freshman Ilhan Omar in Minnesota is fending off a Democratic primary challenger, Antone Melton-Meaux, backed by the pro-Israel wing of the party. But the latter has only a half million dollars in campaign funds compared to Omar’s $3.4 million. Omar is expected to win in the August primary, though this year she only won the endorsement of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer Labor Party with 65% of the delegates. Nevertheless, the drift in the Democratic Party seems clear – a more critical stance against Israel and greater sympathy for the Palestinian cause. After all, Representative Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez, a severe critic of Israel, easily won her primary in New York’s 14th District.

Most Democrats support Israel but most also are opposed to Israel’s settlement and especially its proposed annexation policies. More importantly, under the pressure of increasing numbers of progressive delegates and candidates, there has been a noticeable shift towards greater support for the Palestinians and stronger criticism of Netanyahu, criticism enhanced because Netanyahu aligned himself so strongly with Donald Trump and the Republican Party. The key issues may become discrimination against Palestinians and enhanced support for Palestinian rights to self-determination.

At the same time, the majority of Jews in the U.S. also seem to be opposed to annexation, though Yitz Tendler in the Jerusalem Post (18 June 2020) contended that a majority of engaged American Jews supported annexation, as evidenced by the votes in the World Zionist Congress where the annexationists won an 80 to 69 win. However, even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) came out with an equivocal statement a month ago to gloss over diaspora divisions. The motion stated that it would be a mistake to allow annexation of parts of the West Bank should the initiative affect Israel-U.S. relations. But most non-engaged Jews oppose annexation.  In Canada, 58 prominent Jews who are strong supporters of Israel urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to speak out in opposition to annexation. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union of Reform Judaism in the U.S., expressed the belief in a webinar yesterday and in an article penned with Rabbi Hara Person (“Urge the Israeli Government Not to Carry Out Unilateral West Bank Annexation”) that this maximalist initiative is a turning point in Israeli-Jewish/American-Jewish relations because the annexation is unilateral, breaches the rights to self-determination of the Palestinians and is allegedly an immense step towards making Israel a non-democratic state in order to retain its Jewish character. Israel risks losing its moral stature, risks losing its position on the moral high ground when it surrenders, in spite of or because of Palestinian non-cooperation, holding out the prospect of a Palestinian state.

This has been a phenomenon around the world. This past shabat, the story is read about the 12 Biblical spies sent to assess the prospect of the Israelites acquiring the land of Israel. 10 reported back that the task was too formidable. (They are generally taken to task by most rabbinical interpreters.) There are a host of prognostications about the dangers of annexing parts of the West Bank, not just a military danger, but even more of a political and ethical one to Israel’s democracy. They include the following list just sent to me by the New Israel Fund of Canada:

“This letter [a full page ad in Ha’aretz] is another piece of a concerted global effort to stop Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, a move which would severely damage Israel’s democracy and make the unequal and discriminatory legal system in the West Bank formal and permanent. Examples include:

  • 400 Jewish academics, including NIF International Board President Prof. David Myers and NIFC Advisory Council members Prof. Mira Sucharov and Prof. Derek Penslar, signed a letter denouncing unilateral annexation as a “crime against humanity”.
  • 40 leading British Jewish figures sent a letter to the Israeli ambassador to the UK stating that unilateral annexation would pose an existential threat to Israel.
  • 58 former Canadian ministers and diplomats, including NIFC Advisory Council member and former Canadian ambassador to Israel Jon Allen, called on Prime Minister Trudeau to show stronger resistance to proposed Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
  • Over 250 international law scholars sent a letter to the Israeli government condemning Israel’s plan to annex the West Bank as a flagrant violation of international law.
  • Over 220 former IDF commanders and generals signed a letter calling upon Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi to prevent the government from taking any unilateral annexation measures.”

In addition to the opposition within Jewish ranks, the Arabs are certainly opposed. This is not a reference to the enemies of Israel – Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas – but to developing allies of the Jewish state. The most prominent spokesperson from the Gulf States was the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, who, last Friday, in both a video in perfect English and in an op-ed in Hebrew in the newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, speaking directly to Israelis, warned against annexing any territory in the West Bank. “Annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with UAE.” Yesterday, in his interview at the webinar run by the Israeli Policy Forum, he also expressed his concern with the mood of the street that could threaten the security of Arab regimes.

King Abdullah II of Jordan has refused to take any telephone calls from Netanyahu. The Jordan/Iraq border is viewed by many in the Israeli defence establishment as a much more important security border than the Jordan River and its security is threatened by annexation. Abdullah warned that, “Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank could lead to ‘a massive conflict’ between his country and the Jewish state and did not exclude the possibility of suspension of Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel if it proceeds with annexation.”

On the other hand, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash of Abu Dhabi, while disagreeing with Israel over Jerusalem and on the Palestinian issue, called for increased cooperation and open lines of communication with Israel and decoupling the Palestinian issue from mutual benefits in other fields. At the same time, Abu Dhabi opposed the plans for annexation. Clearly, for Abu Dhabi, though staunchly opposed, annexation would not spell the death of the recent rapprochement with Israel. “This unilateral step is illegal, undermines chances for peace and contradicts all efforts made by the international community to reach a lasting political solution in accordance with relevant international resolutions,” according to UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Understandably, the most severe Arab critic is Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank. He threatens to cease security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank and even possibly administration of the West Bank itself. He does so without promising to resume peace negotiations if plans for annexation are cancelled. He has already cut off all cooperation and communication, including cooperation on stemming the COVID 19 pandemic, and Israel has not passed on the taxes it collects on behalf of the PA. On the other hand, it does seem odd, even paradoxical, that the Palestinians can only declare a state following negotiations, but Israel could unilaterally annex 30% of the West Bank to expand its state.

Many Israeli defence and intelligence officials would dearly like to avoid Israel assuming responsibility for policing the Arab areas of the West Bank and do not believe that risking cooperation with the PA is reasonable given the likely downside. Abbas claimed that under the threat of annexation, he was absolved, “of all the agreements and understandings with the American and Israeli governments and of all the obligations based on these understandings and agreements, including the security ones.” Is he just shooting his own nation in the foot? Is he destroying or resurrecting the moral and humanitarian commitment of the United States to Palestinian self-determination by undermining the security relations with Israel and the U.S.?

Only the European Union (EU) threats do not touch on Israeli security because there is little muscle behind them, even though the EU is Israel’s largest trading partner. The EU only said that the 27-nation bloc would not recognize the annexation and not that relations or cooperation agreements would be endangered. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has expressed grave concern and alarm when the Palestinian Authority told the IICC that Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank would annul the Oslo Accords and all other bilateral agreements.  However, though the harm to public relations with the Europeans may be a risk worth taking for the right in Israel, is the potential of much more serious harm on all other fronts worth it?

So where is the gain, the annexation critics ask? The situation has been relatively stable for the last few years. That answer is clearer than the proposal. It secures Netanyahu’s legacy. Even though it does not satisfy the settler organizations, which demand annexation of all of the West Bank and the fulfillment of Menachem Begin’s 1977 promise to annex the entire West Bank, it does fulfil promises both Netanyahu and the Likud made in the last election to annex sections of the West Bank in accordance with the Trump Administration’s “Deal of the Century.” Presumably, or perhaps not so presumably, Netanyahu, who is traditionally risk averse, has concluded that the gains far outweigh the risks and that Israel will have no better opportunity than when Donald Trump is President of the United States. Based on the precedent of the annexation of East Jerusalem, Eugene Kontorovich, Director of George Mason University’s Center for International Law, makes the argument in detail in the current issue of Mosaic.

But look at the cost. For the first time in a major initiative involving security, the defence and intelligence apparatus of Israel has not been involved in making the plan or even been consulted. There has been no risk analysis attached to the plan. For such a significant move, the lack of process and a government-led study is astounding. In the past, the IDF always led the process, but in this case, the IDF has been marginalized. Even if sovereignty is extended to all of the 30% of the West Bank mentioned, it will mean a decline of security control of an additional 30%, for Israel now controls 60% of the West Bank. Israeli direct security control will be cut in half. The IDF and the intelligence services will have fewer resources to deal with the Syria, the Lebanon and the Gaza borders. There is also the risk to Israeli-diaspora relations, to U.S.-Israeli relations if Donald Trump loses, to the emerging friendships with the Arab Gulf States, to a virtual ally, Jordan, and to the security arrangements with Abbas in the West Bank as the IDF is preparing to handle anticipated riots and even the resumption of an intifada while Hamas has resumed shooting rockets into Israel.

I have not weighed the cost for Israel itself. The cost is not a risk of losing public support, for a majority of Israelis now support annexation of the large Jewish population centres in the West Bank. The cost is possibly to the long-term character of Israel. For the move will heighten the support among Palestinians for a one state solution, propelled in part because Netanyahu, contrary to his earlier position in 2009, promised his Likud faction that no government that he leads would ever recognize an independent Palestinian state even in principle. And, if Israel is to remain democratic and not become a version of an apartheid state, a one state solution will mean either that Israel absorbs 2.9 million Palestinians as citizens or it loses its character as a democratic state. The latter option seems to many as the more likely prospect, though many on the right argue that limited Palestinian autonomy will avoid both of these alternatives. Many even support this new version of a two-state solution which has the great advantage of removing veto power over a peace agreement from the Palestinians while, at the same time, demonstrating that non-cooperation only leads to future deals that are less generous.

Even though only 4% of the Israeli Jewish population think of annexation as a priority issue, the majority support the initiative because no one, neither Jew nor Palestinian, is forced to move. Both sides would have the next four years to negotiate permanent borders and the actual boundaries of sovereign political realms. Though there are dire warnings about a renewed intifada, most Israelis doubt it will take place since nothing on the ground will really change, except the legal framework under which the settlers live. However, certainly there is significant risk. For what real gains?

As with all things Israeli, only the future will tell for sure.

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