Deputy Fathom Editor Calev Ben-Dor offers Fathom readers a comprehensive review of the Israeli debate about, and likely international reactions to, the impending partial annexation of the West Bank. He maps the reasons for the rise in influence of the Sovereignty Movement, and the idea of annexation: the erosion of the classic ‘land for peace’ paradigm, the publication of the Trump Plan, the Israeli public consensus that there is no Palestinian partner and that the Jordan Valley must be Israel’s security border, and, for many, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s identification of the issue as a vote winner and the consequent erosion of the demarcation line between the long-term national interest and short-term domestic political interests. The editors invite responses to this article.
As a new Israeli government was formed, and talk of annexing parts of the West Bank gathered pace, I was reminded of a visit to the nature reserve outpost of Oz VeGaon in the Gush Etzion settlement ‘bloc’ to meet Nadia Matar, one of the founders of Women in Green. Matar, affable and gracious in a way that belies her reputation as a fiery right-winger, told of how, following the 2005 disengagement from Gaza (she called it ‘the expulsion’), the right wing realised it needed to change tactics. For too long, Matar explained, the right wing simply said no to everything – to the Oslo process, to territorial withdrawals, to a Palestinian state, to disengagement – but failed to offer a competing idea. And so the Sovereignty Movement was born – a broad tent united by the idea that Israeli sovereignty should be extended to the West Bank (what they call Judea and Samaria). It constituted an attempt to bring a competing paradigm into the debate about how to best deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Some within the sovereignty movement happily use the term annexation. But others believe it unsuitable because it infers another state was once recognised as sovereign over the territory, which is not the case in the West Bank. (Before Israel captured the area in 1967, the area was under Jordanian, British and Ottoman control.) They thus prefer the term sovereignty or extending Israeli law and jurisdiction. Indeed, any Knesset vote on this issue would likely adopt the same semantic form, as in the cases of East Jerusalem in 1967 and the Golan Heights in 1981. Then Knesset legislation simply stated that ‘the law, jurisdiction and administration’ of the state ‘will take effect’ in specific territories. In fact, during a stormy Knesset debate, PM Menachem Begin explicitly rejected accusations that Israel was annexing the Golan.
For many years, the Sovereignty Movement was peripheral in the Israeli policy debate. But with the continued erosion of the ‘two states for two peoples’ paradigm, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pre and post-election promises to apply sovereignty over settlements, and the apparent green light from the Trump administration, the movement’s aims have shot to the centre of the Israeli public debate.
Indeed, the Trump administration’s ‘Peace to Prosperity’ Plan has given a tailwind to the sovereignty paradigm. The plan envisages a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, with outlying Arab neighbourhoods of ‘eastern Jerusalem’ deemed the Palestinian capital; A State of Palestine would be established encompassing approximately 70 per cent of the West Bank and a territorial exchange from substantial territories inside Israel adjacent to the Gaza Strip. Israel would keep control of the sparsely populated and strategically important Jordan Valley and not be required to dismantle any settlements, although 15 – 19 Israeli ‘enclave communities’ (settlements) would remain inside a Palestinian state.
Like many Trump policies, it’s big on hype but short on details for implementation. Moreover, mixed messages have been heard as to when Israeli annexation would get the administration’s blessing. Ambassador David Friedman – a long-time supporter of the Settlement Movement – seemingly gave a green light once a joint planning group had finished its work. And in late April, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it was up to Israel whether it chose to apply sovereignty to parts of the West Bank. But one senior American official reportedly said Israeli annexation must come ‘in the context of an offer to the Palestinians to achieve statehood based upon specific terms, conditions, territorial dimensions and generous economic support’. Last week, Israeli Channel 13 said the Americans ‘want to downplay the enthusiasm’ for imminent annexation, in order ‘to greatly slow the process’.
This essay looks at the Israeli debate over annexation and why the policy has so significantly entered the policy mainstream. Setting the debate in historical context, it explores the spectrum of opinion within the Sovereignty Movement and argues that the erosion of the ‘land for peace’ paradigm has facilitated the rise of annexation talk. This, alongside the publication of the Trump Plan, a general public consensus on the importance of the Jordan Valley as a security border, and the increasingly thinning line between national interests and domestic political concerns is driving Israeli policy.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: THE DEBATE AFTER 1967
The current deliberations within Israel over the future of the territories it captured and occupied in 1967 – especially about how to balance the competing values of security, historical connection, demography and the prevention of diplomatic isolation – is an extension of a 50-year long argument. Indeed, minutes from a ministerial subcommittee that took place soon after the 6-Day War set the tone for the discussions that ensued in the following decades.
In their book, Be Strong and of Good Courage, How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny, Dennis Ross and David Makovsky describe how amongst the ministers gathered around the Cabinet table, ‘an overall consensus emerged on the importance of the Jordan River serving as Israel’s eastern border, although whether as a “security border” or a “political border” was a dramatic and historical point of debate.’ The minutes detail how some suggested that a withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, if linked to peace with Jordan, could assuage demographic concerns by shifting responsibility for the Arab-Palestinian residents of the West Bank onto the Hashemite Kingdom. Minister without portfolio Menachem Begin said that the Jewish state should declare that the entirety of ‘Western Eretz Yisrael’ (the area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean) belonged to Israel. In response, Justice Minister Yaakov Shimshon Shapiro warned that, if that course were followed, ‘in the not too distant future, we will become a binational state.’ Prime Minister Eshkol – who famously said that Israel had ‘been given a good dowry, but it comes with a bride we don’t like’ – also worried that annexing the land would ultimately lead to the Jews being a minority in the country.
Begin countered with what today remains a radical idea – that Israel offer residency to the territory’s Arab-Palestinian residents, who would then be eligible to gain citizenship after seven years. A decade later, when he himself was Prime Minister and was discussing a potential framework for peace with Egypt that envisaged autonomy for Palestinians, Begin reintroduced the idea. In a Knesset speech, he suggested a ‘free choice of citizenship, including Israeli citizenship’ and ‘total equality of rights’ for the West Bank population, citing ‘fairness’, and adding that Israel ‘never wanted to be like Rhodesia.’
It has taken several decades to reach the ‘not too distant future’ that Shapiro warned about. But that future is now, with most demographers – as well as COGAT, the Defence Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories – estimating that a similar number of Jews and Arabs now live in the area between the Jordan river and Mediterranean Sea.
These demographic estimates mean that the Zionist movement faces a deep dilemma in which it seemingly needs to compromise on one of its three core components – its Jewish majority, its democratic character, or its sovereignty over the entire ‘Land of Israel’. The dilemma has been repeated ad nauseam – either a state in the entirety of the land, which can only have a Jewish majority if half the population are not given voting rights [i.e. not democratic]; a democratic state in the whole land, which wouldn’t enjoy a clear Jewish majority; or a Jewish and democratic state in only part of the land. Historically, when forced to choose, the mainstream of the Zionist movement has chosen the latter option – i.e. been willing to forgo the entirety of the land in order to maintain a Jewish and democratic state. So how does the ‘Sovereignty Movement’ propose to square this circle (or triangle)?
THE SUPPORTERS OF ANNEXATION: INSIDE THE SOVEREIGNTY MOVEMENT’S BROAD TENT
First, we should note that there remain some (although not many) who see themselves as Begin’s heirs – those who support Israeli control over the West Bank and are willing to grant the option of citizenship to all its inhabitants. Numbered in this (ever dwindling) group are former Likud MK and Minister Benny Begin, President Rivlin (who since becoming President has been less outspoken on this controversial topic), and the late Moshe Arens, the former Defence Minister and Foreign Minister. Arens wrote in Haaretz in 2010 that ‘Adding another 1.5 million Muslims, the population of Judea and Samaria, to Israel’s Muslim population would of course make the situation considerably more difficult. Would a 30 per cent Muslim minority in Israel create a challenge that would be impossible for Israeli society to meet? That is a question that Israeli politicians, and all Israelis – Jews and Arabs alike – need to ponder.’ Arens adds that this option ‘would not be the end of the State of Israel, nor would it mean the end of democratic governance in Israel. It would, however, pose a serious challenge to Israeli society. But that is equally true for the other options being suggested for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.’ Arens and Co never shied away from that challenge. Instead they argued that it wasn’t significantly more difficult than implementing partition.
Debating the numbers
One common denominator between Arens and many others in the Sovereignty Movement is the questioning of the ‘official’ numbers of Palestinians in the West Bank. The best known of these advocates is former Israel diplomat Yoram Ettinger, who argues that a Jewish majority of 66 per cent exists within Israel and the West Bank. Ettinger and others believe the demographers have miscounted – that Palestinian statisticians include Palestinians living abroad in their figures; disregard Palestinian emigration (averaging 18,000 people per year), and ‘double count’ both East Jerusalamites and Palestinians who married Israeli citizens. Ettinger also points to the changing trends in both Jewish and Arab fertility, concluding that ‘This [current two-thirds Jewish] majority will become a demographic tailwind, stemming from the surge in Jewish fertility, especially among secular Jews, compared with the collapse of Muslim fertility, stemming from various aspects of modernisation.‘ Amazingly, the numbers can sometimes differ by as much as 1 million. The same day I met Nadia who referred to 1.8 million Arabs in Judea and Samaria, a representative from Peace Now talked to me of 2.7 million Palestinians in the same area. In the aftermath of Disengagement, Gaza and its 2 million residents are also excluded from the demographic calculus.
The Dream of Mass Jewish immigration
Others believe Israel can have its territorial cake and maintain its Jewish and democratic character by encouraging mass Jewish immigration. Tzipi Hotovely, a Likud MK, former Diaspora Affairs Minister, and reportedly the next Ambassador to the Court of St James (after she completes three months in the newly created Settlements Ministry) believes Israel should encourage a wave of immigrants in the coming decades. Writing in the Sovereignty Journal, Hotovely said ‘If this is what Ben Gurion did when we were a weak country, then when the country is secure and economically strong … should we be ashamed to speak of gathering in the exiles? If, of the nine million Jews in the world, we bring one million, we have already provided a significant demographic answer.’ Quoting Ben Gurion in this context is a tad disingenuous. A huge backer of Jewish immigration, Ben Gurion also specifically rejected conquering the West Bank in 1948 due to demographic fears of the Jews becoming a minority.
The dream that masses of Jewish immigrants could soften the demographic challenge of controlling the West Bank isn’t new. Perhaps Hotovely was channelling her inner Yitzchak Shamir, the former Likud Prime Minister who – even before the fall of the Berlin Wall – hoped Soviet Jewish immigrants would come to the Holy Land. But one would have to wear rose tinted spectacles to believe that today’s Israel will experience any additional mass Jewish immigration. If the American Jewish Conservatives stayed home during Barak ‘Hussein’ Obama’s term and American Jewish progressives haven’t flocked in their droves during Donald ‘very fine people’ Trump’s presidency, it’s difficult to imagine where these million new immigrants will come from. It’s certainly unlikely that Hotovely will make significant headway in advancing this idea with the British Jewish Community when she takes up her post.
Residency with Conditional Citizenship
Hotovely also advocates delaying citizenship for the Palestinian-Arab population in the West Bank, arguing that ‘We must bear in mind that this is a hostile entity and it is impossible to turn them into citizens overnight.’ Instead she calls for a gradual process lasting 25 years which she calls ‘annexation-naturalisation.’ Such a process will also include legislation to define Israel as a state for the Jewish people and require those who request equal rights to meet obligations such as paying taxes and performing National Service.
Bezalel Smotrich, a Yamina MK (and former Transportation Minister) explains that ‘The Arabs will be offered three options: One, to give up the Palestinian national aspiration and live in peaceful coexistence as residents. Two, to voluntarily emigrate, with generous Israeli assistance. Three, those who continue to fight will be dealt with firmly by Israel’s security forces’. Smotrich’s residence model (the first option) ‘will be based on the self-management of six municipal administrations (Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jericho, Nablus and Jenin) without nationalistic features and will be carried out gradually. In the first stage, the residents’ right to vote will be limited to municipal (rather than national) elections. At a later stage, he suggests either reaching broad agreement with Jordan to allow the ‘Arabs of Judea and Samaria’ to vote for the Jordanian parliament; creating two separate legislative houses in Israel – one for civil decisions, one for national decisions – with the ‘Arabs of Judea and Samaria’ voting only for the first one; and/or granting full citizenship – including the right to vote for the Knesset – to those ‘Arab residents who are willing to demonstrate their complete loyalty to the Jewish state, including by doing full military service, similar to Israel’s Druze citizens.’
Smotrich does not expand on how Israel’s citizen army will deal with those Palestinians unwilling to give up their nationalist ideas without suffering mass conscientious objection. He is also silent on the conditions under which the Hashemite monarchy (whose stability is vital to Israel) will happily reassume responsibility for the Palestinians they explicitly gave up on in 1987. Moreover, it is unclear whether he believes his Druze model will be suitable for even a handful of West Bank Palestinians. But sovereignty conferences often host a Palestinian speaker or two arguing that Palestinians prefer to live under Israeli control than the corrupt Palestinian Authority.
This line – that Israeli sovereignty is preferable for Palestinians – is also taken up by Israeli journalist Caroline Glick who believes that ‘Israeli democracy and the status of the civil rights of Israelis and Palestinians alike will be massively enhanced if Israel applies its sovereignty over Judea and Samaria.’ Glick argues that ‘The Palestinians in particular have been the primary victims of the ‘Two-State’ formula in that they were better off living under Israeli military rule (the ‘freest society in the Middle East outside Israel’) than ‘being subject to the PLO’s jackboot’. ‘For the past 20 years’, Glick explains, ‘the Palestinians have lived in a legal jungle, with no protected rights whatsoever and have stood by powerless as their children have been indoctrinated to become murderers and bigots.’ In this context, Glick believes that ‘The Israeli “One-State” plan offers them true civil rights and corrects a situation that should never have been created to begin with.’
Glick also talks about citizenship, although she restricts the right to vote to those who did not belong to a terrorist organisation or the apparatuses of the Palestinian Authority. Those who do not receive this right will be classed as permanent residents, like the residents of East Jerusalem, and will benefit from all other civil rights.
As Nadia Matar explained to me, ‘The offer of civil rights without national rights is a decent suggestion for a minority. At the end of the day, not every people need their own state. They can leave, get residency, or potentially have a path to citizenship.’ Ultimately though, for Matar and others, it is a binary choice. ‘There is no middle way – either Israeli sovereignty, or a Palestinian state.’
Sovereignty over parts – rather than all – of the West Bank
Another group within the Sovereignty Movement seeks to extend Israeli control over parts of the West Bank rather than all of it, a strategy veteran Likud MK Zeev Elkin refers to as the ‘salami method’. Naftali Bennett, former Defence Minister and leader of Yamina, told Fathom that Area C should be annexed gradually, starting with Maaleh Adumim and Gush Etzion (areas considered part of the domestic Israeli ‘consensus’ but seen by Palestinians and the international community to be illegally occupied land). Yoaz Hendel, now Communications Minister, promotes something similar – that Israel annex 30 per cent of the West Bank including settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley. Both believe that Palestinian-Arabs residing in the annexed areas will have the option of receiving full Israeli citizenship.
THE DEAL OF THE CENTURY OR THE DEATH OF A DREAM? THE SOVEREIGNTY MOVEMENT CONFRONTS THE TRUMP PLAN
Ironically, in addition to the Palestinian National Movement and the Israeli left wing, the Trump Plan also poses significant – even existential – challenges to the maximalist wing of the Sovereignty Movement.
In a recently published letter, several heads of the local authorities in the West Bank wrote that they see the Trump plan as ‘a historic moment’ because it ‘will recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria’. But the Yesha Council, an umbrella organisation of municipal councils of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, has launched a campaign against what they dub ‘the partition plan’, as it recognises a Palestinian state and sucks the oxygen from the ‘enclave communities’. One unnamed Yesha Council member was quoted by Maariv as saying: ‘We need to act to persuade the decision-makers that they have to support the sovereignty map [drawn up] by the settler leaders and not the one [drawn up] by Trump administration representatives.’ And in a statement that likely caused embarrassment and consternation in the Prime Minister’s Office, Yesha Council Chairman David Elhayani said Donald Trump was ‘not a friend’ of Israel. In a line reminiscent of a classic Eddie Izzard comedy sketch, Elhayani remarked ‘If someone comes to me with a cake while holding a gun to my head will I just take some cake and then say goodbye?’
Ninety three year old Elyakim Haetzni, one of the early leaders of the settlement movement, was also extremely critical of the Trump plan. He said: ‘Anyone would define such a plan as a leftist plan, but because of Netanyahu’s genius, he manages to package the plan in such a way that the Right celebrates. If a month ago I had brought up a plan where the Land would be divided, the idea of two states for two peoples would be accepted, there would be a capital for the state of Palestine in Abu Dis and other parts of Jerusalem, leaving contiguous blocs of settlement while leaving 15 key [Jewish] communities as enclaves and isolated islands; if I had added an offer to give the Arabs parts of the Negev and Emek Iron, with the allocated part of the Negev bigger than the Gaza Strip; if I would have proposed a connection via a tunnel, not under Israel’s control, between Judea and the Gaza Strip, by way of which they could transport anything without oversight, so that they would be able to build a port in Gaza as a sovereign Palestinian territory, or use the tunnel to bring weapons into Judea and Samaria, or even a battalion of Turkish soldiers, just as such soldiers were sent into Libya, would anyone have defined such a plan as a “right-wing plan”?’ Haetzni’s son, Nadav, referred to the plan as the ‘Palestinian Balfour Declaration’.
While Palestinians see the (further) partitioning of the land to leave 30 per cent of the West Bank in Israel’s hands as a disaster, those who see any Palestinian state as a repudiation of the Greater Land of Israel ideology feel similarly aggrieved. Paradoxically, effective domestic opposition to any partial annexation move by the Israeli Government may be more likely to come from the political right than from the left or the pragmatic centre.
THE OPPONENTS OF ANNEXATION: DOMESTIC AND INTERNATIONAL
The Battle-Hardened Domestic Opponents
For those opposing annexation – led in Israel by former security officials – obsessing about the differences between partial and full annexation is hair splitting. The consequences of either, as they see it, will be disastrous. Organisations such as Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS) and the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) argue that any partial annexation moves may trigger a chain reaction that would lead to the termination of Palestinian security coordination (which Abbas announced in late May) and the possible collapse of the Palestinian Authority, with Hamas subsequently exploiting the chaos, and the IDF being pulled back into the Palestinian cities they left in the 1990s.
As Amnon Reshef of CIS writes, ‘I fear that a unilateral annexation would thus oblige the IDF to deploy its forces in the streets of Nablus and Qalqilya and the alleyways of the casbah, bringing back the “good old days” of the Civil Administration during which Israel managed and financed the needs of the Palestinian population of the territories.’ Amos Yadlin, head of the INSS, describes annexation as an ‘anti-Zionist course of action that will prevent the future possibility of separating from the Palestinians and of preserving Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, a state that is both safe and moral.’ He adds that it will also undermine the battle to stop Iranian progress toward nuclear weapons and cut off any chances for normalisation with the pragmatic, anti-Iran Sunni world.
Both organisations believe such moves would undermine the peace treaty with Jordan which provides Israel with strategic depth vis-a-vis Iran and might also weaken military coordination with Egypt in fighting terrorist elements operating in and from Sinai. Senior economists who contributed to a CIS report estimated that the financial cost of Israel being forced into retaking control over the entirety of the West Bank (following the collapse of the Palestinian Authority) would come to NIS 52 billion per year.
In addition to the scenarios described by CIS and INSS, Amos Gilad, former Director of Policy and Political-Military Affairs at the Defence Ministry, predicts a diplomatic nightmare should annexation take place. ‘Diplomatically, Israel is liable to find itself opening a gratuitous front against important European countries. That will have economic repercussions.’ Veteran Arab affairs journalist Ehud Yaari described annexation as a ‘gratuitous adventure that will produce conflict without any real need’ and warns it constitutes ‘a serious breach of international law’ that could open Israel up to investigations by the International Criminal Court.
Based on these warnings, Israel will likely face security, diplomatic, and legal challenges the day after annexation. And that’s without the long-term consequences of seemingly closing the door on a two state solution.
The International Community: Aghast but Unlikely to Act
The world (barring the Trump administration) has also looked on aghast as Israeli moves towards annexation seemingly gather pace.
Without any hint of sarcasm, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a press release stating that annexation may lead to an escalation of violence, and that ‘expansionist moves may provoke a dangerous wave of violence across the Palestinian territories and de-stabilise the Middle East as a whole’.
In a typically laconic statement, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the Union will work to ‘discourage’ any Israeli initiative toward annexation and devote diplomatic efforts to finding a solution. In a display of slightly more forthright diplomacy, Germany, the UK, Poland, Belgium, Estonia and France have warned against annexation, while European nations including France, Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, Spain and Luxembourg have reportedly expressed support for threats of punitive action in a bid to deter Israel.
European moves that could financially, symbolically and diplomatically hurt Israel include recognition of a Palestinian state, reconsidering funding of the Palestinian Authority (based on the conclusion that its hundreds of millions of Euros a year are simply bankrolling Israeli occupation rather than facilitating Palestinian institution building), implementing greater policy differentiation between sovereign Israel and West Bank settlements, and potentially rethinking Israeli participation in the successor to Horizon 2020, which is due to expire in December. Some, but not all these measures require unanimity – which is unlikely to be reached due to the presence of some strong allies of Israel in the EU. Ultimately, Israel’s sovereigntists point out, the Europeans have more pressing priorities to deal with in the form of Brexit, Corona, unemployment, refugees/migrants, and the Syrian Civil War.
The Arab World
The Arab world has also been strident in its opposition. When asked whether Jordan could suspend the peace treaty following annexation, King Abdullah II reiterated that he didn’t ‘want to make threats and create an atmosphere of loggerheads, but we are considering all options,’ adding that such an Israeli policy ‘would lead to a massive conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’.
United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed also expressed his concern, saying Israeli annexation was ‘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.’ Bin Zayed also rejected Netanyahu’s assertion that the Arab countries would accept it, saying the policy ‘contradict[s] the reality of the Arab position, as the Arab consensus is declared and fixed in the decisions issued by the League of Arab States and confirmed in many Arab ministerial meetings.’
The Palestinian Authority – which doesn’t have many cards up its sleeve – announced the suspension of security cooperation with Israel in late May, with Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki describing the move as a pre-emptive strike against annexation and an attempt to enlist the international community. The significance of this decision shouldn’t be understated. For years Abbas held back from making it, despite public pressure to the contrary. The PA is clearly signalling. But it remains unclear as to whether anyone will listen or care enough.
A Diplomatic Tsunami or Crying Wolf?
Unfortunately, for those opposing Israeli annexation, the international community’s warnings are unlikely to deter an Israeli government that genuinely believes annexation advances the national interest (of which more later). Most of the Israeli public no longer believe the predictions of doom and gloom. The security, diplomatic and legal threats and warnings voiced by the Palestinians, Jordanians, and Europeans all have merit. But Israelis have heard them before. If Netanyahu had a dollar for every time the Palestinians threatened to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, he’d have enough money to fund his legal defence.
Almost a decade ago, then Defence Minister (and former Prime Minister) Ehud Barak was warning of a diplomatic tsunami if the impasse in the peace process continued. In 2015, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, also used the term. Yet when Israelis look around, they see calm waters – strong relations with China, India, eastern Europe, and several African states. Granted, certain Western European countries prefer not to roll out the red carpet for Netanyahu. But he has strengthened covert ties with Gulf States, enjoys a bromance with Trump, and maintains a near open line to Putin. With hand on heart, can analysts honestly say many (any?) of these relationships will be significantly undermined by Israeli annexation?
Yes, the EU will publish ‘strongly worded’ statements decrying Israeli moves. And the Russian Foreign Ministry may even issue additional (hypocritical) statements. But it brings to mind a phrase in Hebrew and Arabic that ‘the dogs bark and the convoy passes.’ Condemnations may come and go, but it won’t make a difference on the ground. Ultimately, the only real deterrence (in a scenario in which Israel sees annexation as advancing its national interest) would be an American administration giving a red light, or Jordan and Egypt credibly threatening to cancel their peace treaties. The collapse (or dissolution) of the PA would certainly bring about significant challenges and would be a death bell to the two state solution. But supporters of the Greater Land of Israel see such a development as an opportunity rather than a nightmare. When the Palestinians threaten, they say ‘be our guest’.
WHERE DOES THE ISRAELI PUBLIC STAND?
But if Israelis pay scant attention to the international community (bar the US), why have Commanders for Israel’s Security, INSS, and others seemingly failed to influence policy making?
One reason is that while their recommendations are significantly different from the annexationists – CIS and INSS want to keep the window open for a two state solution – their diagnosis of the problem is broadly similar. In other words, a broad consensus exists within Israeli society that a two state solution along the lines of the 2000 Clinton Parameters or the 2008 offer by Prime Minister Olmert is simply not attainable in the near future. Justified or not, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian National Movement is considered to lack either the will or the capacity to sign a final status agreement to end the conflict.
This consensus isn’t the result of right-wing brainwashing. Rather, the Palestinian rejection of Israeli peace offers (whether they were reasonable or not is beyond the scope of this discussion) has convinced Israelis that no Zone of Possible Agreement exists between the sides: the maximum Israel can offer is less than the minimum the Palestinians can accept. In addition, the large number of settlers (over 100,000) who live east of the security barrier make separating the populations difficult; the chain-smoking octogenarian Abbas presides over a PA suffering from a domestic legitimacy gap; and the deep division between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank undermines the Palestinian’s ability to speak and negotiate in one voice.
Yes, those on the left and centre left continue to warn of the dangers of continued occupation (moral, diplomatic, demographic); they emphasise the need for partition; they provide suggestions for keeping the two state solution on life-support. But the word peace – and certainly the ‘New Middle East’ promised by Shimon Peres – has been replaced in the Israeli lexicon by ‘separation’. Indeed, even amongst veteran members of the peace camp – such as the late Amos Oz and David Grossman – hopes for a rosy future with the Palestinians have wavered.
In one recent speech, Grossman suggested the best Israelis could hope for was ‘not bad neighbourliness’. Amos Oz wrote that he and his friends in the peace camp were now working towards a conclusion along the lines of a Chekhovian (rather than Shakespearean) tragedy – one in which the sides are unhappy, bitter, disillusioned and melancholy. And while such sombre analyses are likely far closer to reality than those voiced during the heady years of Oslo, the argument that Israeli society needs to make deep territorial concessions (evacuate settlements, divide Jerusalem etc) just to receive a Chekhovian solution in return, is unlikely to be a big vote winner. Why risk a potential civil war in return for ‘not bad neighbourliness’ with the Palestinians?
The Death of ‘Land for Peace’
If Israelis feel that the peace part of the ‘land for peace’ package enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 242 has been eroded, it’s unsurprising they are less willing to make concessions on the land part. After all, ‘land to prevent a binational reality’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it – even if it remains of vital strategic importance for the future of the country and the Zionist vision. Moreover, as states surrounding Israel collapse, such a proposal has increasingly become an electoral liability. It’s certainly revealing that during three rounds of elections, the word ‘peace’ was hardly uttered, even by the (dwindling) Zionist left.
With the erosion of the classic bilateral model of Israelis and Palestinians negotiating over all the core issues with American mediation, other ideas have risen to fill the vacuum. Unilateral withdrawal and the evacuation of settlements in the West Bank was popular for a time. But Hamas’ control of Gaza and Hezbollah’s strength in southern Lebanon – both areas Israeli unilaterally withdrew from – undermined its popularity. Other suggestions, such as a regional package deal in which Israeli concessions would be traded for gains from Arab states make strategic sense. But there is low motivation for such initiatives. The cost of occupation is perceived by the public to be manageable, while the risk of change brings a sharp cost with unclear rewards.
The policy vacuum left by the erosion of these paradigms has been filled by the Sovereignty Movement. This, coupled with the Trump Administration’s seeming openness to partial annexation, and a general Israeli consensus about the importance of the Jordan Valley as a security border has ‘mainstreamed’ the policy of annexation.
But there has been an additional component to the increased ‘ripeness’ of the idea of annexation, namely Netanyahu politically identifying it as a vote winner in increasingly close elections as his corruption trial loomed. But does he mean it? As the Yesha Council argues, the centre-left opposes, Arab states raise the alarm, the EU wags its finger, and the Trump administration touts its Vision for Peace, where does Netanyahu really stand on the issue?
Many see the Prime Minister as a Jekyll and Hyde character. There is Mr Bibi the superficial politician always protecting his base and throwing out empty promises right left, and centre (although less left and centre). But there is also Dr Netanyahu, the sometimes visionary strategist who holds his intellectual own with world statesmen. Is Netanyahu a political opportunist or an ideologue?
Where has he stood historically on extending Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank? Well, Netanyahu’s political journey has been full of zigzags. As opposition leader, he opposed the Oslo Accords, but as Prime Minister he subsequently signed the Wye River Memorandum and Hebron Agreement which transferred West Bank territory to Palestinian control; He often says he opposed the 2005 Gaza Disengagement, but actually voted for it in the Knesset (as veteran political journalist Amnon Abramovich quipped ‘he supported it in the Government and in the Knesset but opposed it in corridors and the television studios’); Netanyahu now promises his supporters that no settlements will be uprooted, but he also publicly outlined a two state vision in the 2009 Bar-Ilan Speech and froze settlement building for 10 months; He consistently rejected the idea of a return to the 1967 ‘Auschwitz borders’ yet was reportedly open to a 2013 framework for peace (and subsequently a plan by Secretary of State John Kerry) that would have required Israel to withdraw from the majority of the West Bank (and he staked out a more concessionary position on refugees than the Olmert-Livni negotiations during Annapolis). Finally, in an often desperate attempt to draw right wing voters away from Yamina towards Likud, Netanyahu made frantic pre-election promises to annex parts of the West Bank, despite having done nothing during his decade in power to advance any such move, though all it would have taken was a simple Knesset vote, which he would likely have won.
Netanyahu grew up in a Revisionist Home. But he has also stated that he doesn’t want a binational state and has generally been guided more by security concerns than religious ones. His former chief of staff Naftali Bennett tells of a visit to Samaria when Netanyahu was leader of the opposition. For Bennett, the place was religiously significant – because the Jewish patriarch Abraham had walked there. For Netanyahu, it was strategically significant – because Israeli control of those hills protected the population centres of Gush Dan. It is this – as well as a generally cautious political nature – that sets Netanyahu apart from the Greater Land of Israel ideologues in Likud as well as most of those in the Sovereignty Movement.
As the region continues to grapple with weak fragile states and both Shia and Sunni fundamentalism, there is certainly a strategic logic in maintaining a long term IDF presence in the Jordan Valley, and elsewhere, as the best guarantee of Israeli security. However, there is a world of difference between this – which even CIS and INSS advocate for the time being – and extending sovereignty over parts or all of the West Bank. If Netanyahu now talks up annexation, what’s changed?
Was Kissinger right after all?
Henry Kissinger once remarked that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics, and it is perhaps here that the solution to the riddle of Netanyahu must be sought. If anyone needed further proof of the timeliness of Kissinger’s analysis they need look no further than the purposefully clumsy and crude apportioning out of ministerial positions in the new government, seemingly guided more by sycophantism to Netanyahu than any relevant professional experience or seniority within Likud. No other reason better explains why Gilad Erdan finds himself as the new ambassador to both Washington and the UN, a dual role even the great Abba Eban had difficulty filling in the 1950s.
After so long in power, Netanyahu believes that he is the only person who can save Israel. He has thus expanded Kissinger’s maxim. No longer a correlation between foreign policy and domestic but rather between foreign policy and the personal. The corollary of Netanyahu’s conviction is that Israel’s national interest is whatever it takes for him to stay in power – regardless of whether that’s extending sovereignty to settlements or being open to evacuating them. Such is the opinion of both Netanyahu’s former Cabinet Secretary Tzvi Hauser (now an MK in the Derech Eretz party serving in the government) and long-time journalist Ben Caspit, who wrote a biography of Netanyahu. In a 2017 interview Caspit told Fathom that ‘My working premise is that Netanyahu’s priority is … the feeling that “I am essential to the security and continued existence of Israel”… So it’s not power for its own sake. Rather, it’s the deep belief that only he can save Israel. There isn’t any specific plan, only his belief that only he is able to manoeuvre the ship to safety at any given moment’. Caspit adds: ‘The true Bibi is the one who can remain in power in order to keep the people of Israel safe.’ As Netanyahu corruption trial begins, this need has become even more fundamental.
If, as UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said, a week is a long time in politics, then much can happen before July when Israel may begin to extend its sovereignty over areas of the West Bank. The government has prioritised passing a budget, alleviating the economic circumstances of a million unemployed and preparing for the potential second wave of Corona. Defence Minister and Alternating Prime Minister Benny Gantz, who is more lukewarm towards annexation, may have some effect on decision-making. Yet while decisions in DC, Ramallah and Amman will have influence, the determining factor will likely remain in Jerusalem, in one man’s calculation of how he, the only man able to make Israel safe in this dangerous world, can win his ongoing fight for political survival.