Sometime this summer, Israel’s new government — a broad left-right unity coalition — may move ahead with plans to formally annex about 30 percent of the West Bank, applying Israeli civilian law to the Jordan Valley and to Jewish settlements established after 1967, when Israel seized the territory in the Six-Day War. It has officially been under military occupation ever since, while its permanent status has been up for negotiation.
While Israel will act only if it gets a green light from the United States, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has signaled that the Trump administration will not object. “That’s an Israeli decision,” Pompeo said last month. “And we will work closely with them to share with them our views of this in [a] private setting.”
Within Israel’s government, there is a solid consensus in favor of annexation. But much of the world has reacted to the prospect with condemnation.
On Tuesday, the French government warned Israel that any move to extend its sovereignty to parts of the West Bank would damage relations with the European Union. The German government and the Palestinian Authority issued a joint statement calling annexation a “clear violation of international law” that would “seriously undermine” the likelihood of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, angrily declared (not for the first time) that he would abrogate all agreements made with Israel and the United States. There were denunciations from Russian and Vatican diplomats. Jordan’s King Abdullah II predicted a “massive conflict” if Israel goes ahead with annexation.
In the United States, Democratic voices joined the chorus of opposition. “I do not support annexation,” former vice president Joe Biden told participants in an online fundraiser. Three Democratic senators circulated a letter avowing that annexation “would fray our unique bonds, imperil Israel’s future, and place out of reach the prospect of a lasting peace.” More than 30 former Democratic foreign policy officials called for adding language criticizing Israel and supporting Palestinian rights in the 2020 Democratic Party platform.
Faced with such antagonism, wouldn’t Israel be better off shelving the whole annexation idea?
For all the fulminating about the threat annexation poses to a “two-state solution,” the scenario being contemplated by Israel would not prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. None of the territory currently administered by the Palestinian Authority would be annexed, nor any Palestinian population center. The purpose of annexation is to extend Israeli sovereignty to existing Jewish communities that have long been seen as destined to remain part of Israel in any peace deal. That would still leave more than two-thirds of the West Bank, plus all of Gaza, for a sovereign Palestinian state.
But statehood has never been the goal of the Palestinian movement. Time and again, Palestinian leaders have been offered a “two-state solution.” Time and again they have said no. In 2000, Israel was willing to recognize a sovereign Palestinian state in virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza, plus shared control of Jerusalem, only to be spurned by Yasser Arafat. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert repeated the offer to Abbas in 2008; he too was turned down. Not even Barack Obama, the most Palestinian-friendly president ever, could elicit a “yes” from the Palestinian Authority.
The root of the conflict has never been land; it has always been the refusal of Palestinians to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state. That is why the “land for peace” strategy repeatedly failed. Unlike Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, who was prepared to accept Israel’s existence in exchange for the return of the Sinai Peninsula, Palestinian leaders have steadfastly insisted that the land “from the river to the sea” must be cleansed of Jews. Israel’s comprehensive withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 — when every settlement was dismantled and the entire territory turned over to Palestinian control — led not to peace, as so many expected, but to increased violence.
By contrast, the conflict tends to recede when Israel asserts its own sovereignty. There was international condemnation when Israel annexed the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, but the controversy faded without more bloodshed. There was outrage when the US embassy in Israel was moved to Jerusalem two years ago, but that storm abated too. Indeed, Biden has said that if he is elected, the embassy will stay where it is.
The most significant development in Israel’s relations with its neighbors in recent years has been the dramatic rise in cooperation with the Sunni Arab countries: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates. Those warming ties, which stem from antipathy to Iran and its menacing “Shia Crescent,” have not been derailed by Israel’s unresolved friction with the Palestinians. There is no reason to expect annexation, if it happens, to change that. Almost as if to underscore the point, Etihad Airways on Tuesday flew its first direct commercial flight from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv. There may be pro forma rebukes from the Arab League. But Israel’s Arab friends won’t go to the mat to support Palestinian intransigence.
Extending Israeli sovereignty to a small part of the West Bank not inhabited by Palestinians won’t change anything on the ground. But maybe, just maybe, it can jolt Abbas and the Palestinian Authority into recognizing that their adamant refusal to compromise is getting them nowhere.
“Annexation can be seen as a step towards ending the deadlock between the parties,” argues Gregg Roman, director of the Middle East Forum, in The Hill. By demonstrating in concrete terms that rejectionism has consequences, annexation might persuade Palestinian leaders that time is not on their side. Granted, it’s a long shot. But Israel has little to lose by taking it. There will be a hullabaloo, but it will pass.