The Netanyahu-Gantz Government’s West Bank Annexation Plan: Time for the U.S. to Help Israel Avoid Shooting Itself in the Foot
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu – Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, having served nearly 14 years in that role – now appears ready to set another milestone, one with potentially disastrous repercussions. More than at any other point in his career as Prime Minister, Bibi seems committed to annexing West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley – potentially devouring around 30% of the West Bank. This ambition is no longer an election campaign promise forgotten the morning after election night. Rather, this is now a plan of action anchored in the April 20th emergency unity government agreement signed between Netanyahu and his former rival, Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz. Under the terms of the coalition pact, annexation now has a concrete start date – July 1, 2020
Article 28 of the Likud-Blue and White agreement states that, with regard to President Trump’s “peace plan,” Netanyahu and Gantz will work to promote it “in full agreement with the United States, including with regard to maps,” while seeking to “safeguard regional stability, maintain existing peace agreements, and strive to achieve future peace agreements.” The reference to “maps” in this section is to a joint Israeli-American committee that commenced working on delineating the boundaries of the Jewish settlements to be annexed to Israel after President Trump had published his “peace plan.”
Article 29 of the emergency unity government agreement adds that, notwithstanding Article 28 (and other agreement provisions), which suspended Knesset initiation of any legislation for the first six months of the unity government’s term, and required the consent of Likud and Blue and White to all government-sponsored legislation thereafter, starting July 1, 2020, Netanyahu may initiate a cabinet or Knesset vote on annexing parts of the West Bank, on the basis of the Trump Administration’s “peace plan.” Per the agreement, such a vote would be held “as quickly as possible.”
Unilaterally Annexing 30% of the West Bank Will Have Catastrophic Results for Israeli-Palestinian Peace and for Israel
The existence of approximately 450,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank may already represent an irreversible, de facto annexation of the West Bank to Israel. Many Israelis, as well as foreign supporters of Israel’s pro-annexation right-wing (such as the drafters of President Trump’s “peace plan”) assert that, because it is no longer feasible (and for some, undesirable) to remove these settlers from the West Bank, any future Israeli-Palestinian Permanent Status Agreement, if one is ever to be reached, must recognize this reality and seek to allow all of these settlers to remain in place. Along this line of thinking, they further assert that, if this is the inevitable result of any future peace agreement, why wait to annex these areas until such an agreement is concluded? There is nothing wrong, therefore, with annexing these settlements to Israel immediately, placing these settlers under Israeli law and administration that would, in any event, be applied to them at a future date on which an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is signed.
In fact, however, following this path would simply add the final nail to the coffin of any possibility for an amicable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute – a hope already on its last leg. As I have already explained, there is no practical need to apply Israeli law to the Jewish settlements in the West Bank because, under military government orders – which are temporary and reversible by nature – the settlements are already managed under Israeli law. The only reason for Bibi to seek to re-apply Israeli law to the settlements, this time through Knesset legislation, is to achieve the political goal of irreversibly making the settlements and surrounding territories part of Israel and virtually beyond negotiation, effectively preventing the two-state solution. For this reason, I have referred to unilaterally annexing the Israeli settlements as a “poison pill” to Middle East peace.
Nor is it inevitable that ALL the Jewish settlements in the West Bank must become part of the sovereign State of Israel as a part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty. Even if much more difficult today than it was when the Oslo Agreement was concluded in 1993 (when only some 110,000 settlers lived in the West Bank), it is still possible to redraw the border between Israel and the future State of Palestine so that the majority of Israeli settlers remain on the Israeli side of the border, with a minority of the settlers having to be relocated back to Israel in return for an approximately equal-sized land swap. This solution would allow for a contiguous Palestinian State and more defensible Israeli borders (the IDF not having to protect “islands” of Israeli settlements, and the roads connecting them, surrounded by sovereign Palestinian territory – as is proposed by the Trump plan).
As I have also explained, proceeding with annexation without an agreement with the Palestinians will guarantee that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will never be resolved, as it would turn the remaining 70% of the West Bank – the West Bank territory not annexed to Israel under the Trump plan’s proposed State of Palestine – into a series of non-contiguous enclaves, surrounded by the State of Israel on all sides, with no borders to the rest of the world, and subjected to Israeli military control.
I have also predicted that, if Israel proceeds with unilateral annexation, sooner or later the Palestinian Authority would weaken to the point of collapse. This would likely lead to Israeli entrance into what have long been Palestinian-controlled Areas A and B, taking full control of the West Bank and millions of Palestinians. As Israel will be unable, constitutionally or politically, to reverse the annexation, and the Trump Administration will be replaced by another U.S. Administration significantly less sympathetic toward annexation, Israel will be doomed to remain stuck in this chaotic situation forever – eternally engaged in periodic clashes with Palestinian violence, left alone with no hope for a brighter future, and facing a dilemma of choosing between preserving its Jewish identity and its democratic nature, which – in these circumstances – would become mutually exclusive.
Now that Netanyahu appears to be determined to move forward expeditiously with annexation, it is clear that, in what could qualify as a basis for a new chapter in Barbara Tuchman’s book, “The March of Folly,” Israel is very soon going to shoot itself in the foot, big time. And with the July 1 target date for starting the annexation process looming, it becomes even more important to urgently consider what can be done to save Israel from the devastating consequences of its own ill-conceived annexation plans.
So what can be done to save Israel from itself? The options are very few and none is too promising.
Under the terms of the Likud-Blue and White unity government agreement, Gantz’s party has veto-power over all governmental legislation initiatives, except for annexation. Apparently, Gantz decided to forgo veto rights on this one important issue because he understood that some of his own party members support annexation and, further, that blocking annexation would be very unpopular for him and his party, further diminishing Blue and White’s prospects in the next elections.
Although the agreement allows Gantz’s party members to vote on the annexation bill as they see fit, it is expected that, once brought to a vote before the Knesset, the annexation law will easily pass – the pro-annexation block in the Knesset (a block that also includes some members of Gantz’s own party, as well as some opposition party members) enjoys a clear majority. When the time comes for Netanyahu to launch the annexation bill, Gantz may point out to him that unilaterally annexing 30% of the West Bank may destabilize the region, jeopardize existing peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, and undermine the achievement of “future peace agreements” – all factors listed in the emergency unity government agreement as considerations that must be taken into account prior to proceeding with unilateral annexation. Gantz may attempt to convince Netanyahu that, given these factors, the Israeli government should abstain from going forward with the annexation plan, or limit annexation to certain areas. But, because Gantz has already agreed to forgo a veto right over this bill, if Netanyahu is determined to proceed, there is nothing that Gantz, or anyone else in Israel, can do to stop the Prime Minister.
Two of Israel’s Arab neighbors object to annexation and could hold some sway. Egypt and Jordan both have peace treaties with Israel, and cooperation between Israel and these states has been important and beneficial. Jordan, especially, fears the repercussions of Israeli annexation in the West Bank – much of the kingdom’s population is Palestinian, and as the possibility of a two-state solution fades away, King Abdullah faces increasing pressure. Jordan and Egypt may issue strongly worded statements demanding Israel to abstain from annexation, and even threaten to recall their ambassadors or suspend their peace treaties with Israel. However, the two countries are so reliant on the United States that they may not be prepared to go overboard or be too proactive in opposing the Israeli annexation plans, given the enthusiastic American support for this step. Further, whatever Egypt and Jordan do, they will likely not be able to change Bibi’s mind.
European countries also may express strong opposition to the annexation and even take retaliatory actions, but nothing that they may say or do appears sufficient to stop Bibi from proceeding with his plans. The same conclusion applies to any possible action by the United Nations or other international organizations.
More generally, the world seems to have lost interest, or at least stamina, in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. And this is even more so today, as the Covid-19 pandemic has both attracted the full attention of the world and imposed significant constraints on the ability of international actors still interested in actively opposing Israeli annexation plans, to coordinate action with others.
The Palestinian leadership is expected to take immediate and drastic counteractions to Bibi’s annexation, ranging from rescinding the Oslo Accords to stopping security cooperation with Israel. Perhaps the most drastic step Palestinian leadership may take would be resigning from their positions in the Palestinian Authority – the Palestinian governing body established by the Oslo Accords – thus letting it collapse, likely leading to chaos and perhaps a third Palestinian Intifada. But having cried wolf so many times in the past, no one in Israel or in the United States appears to be taking the PLO leadership too seriously.
If the Palestinian leaders were smart, however, they could have taken an opposite approach. When in 1977 Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin conceived the Autonomy Plan (which was the basis for the Camp David Accords and, subsequently, the Oslo Accords), he included two very important principles in the proposal. First, he suggested to leave open the question of sovereignty in the West Bank (which Begin referred to by its Biblical name, “Judea and Samaria”) and Gaza, which meant to avoid annexing these areas to Israel. This is what Begin wrote in Section 24 of his plan dated December 28, 1977:
Israel stands by its right and its claim of sovereignty to Judea, Samaria and the Gaza district. In the knowledge that other claims exist, it proposes, for the sake of the agreement and the peace, that the question of sovereignty in these areas be left open.
Second, Begin also proposed to give West Bank and Gaza Palestinians the option of choosing either Israeli or Jordanian citizenship and, for those selecting Israeli citizenship, Begin’s plan would allow them to vote freely for and be elected to the Israeli Knesset (Sections 15-16 of Begin’s Autonomy Plan). The Palestinians, however, rejected Begin’s proposal and boycotted the resultant Camp David Accords. Had they then smartly accepted the plan and selected Israeli citizenship en masse, the number of Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship today would have come to equal or even surpass that of the Jews who hold Israeli citizenship. As a result, instead of a Likud-Blue and White unity government, one could imagine today an Israeli government run by a Likud-PLO-Hamas coalition of parties, with a Palestinian Minister of Defense and a Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs (two of the 16 ministries that Bibi offered to Blue and White to entice Gantz to join him in the emergency unity government).
If, likewise, PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (known as Abu Mazen) were smart, he would react to Bibi’s annexation plan by embracing it, rather than rejecting it, yet insisting on a 100% Israeli annexation of the West Bank. Bibi may actually be wishing that Abu Mazen takes one or more of the steps outlined above in opposing Bibi’s annexation plans, particularly abrogating all of the Oslo Accords. This would, in some ways, pull Bibi’s chestnuts out of the fire – that is, providing him with the excuse to get rid of the Oslo Accords that he had opposed from Day One.
However, should Abu Mazen follow the “please annex 100% of the West Bank” approach, it would resemble the joke about the sadist and the masochist finally meeting. The masochist begs the sadist: “Please, please, torture me.” To which the sadist replies with a sinister smirk and wag of his finger: “Noooooo!”
“I have now realized that we made an error in 1977 when we rejected Begin’s Autonomy Plan,“ Abu Mazen could say, “but we now want to change course. If you carve all the Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley out of the future State of Palestine, you leave us with untenable, Swiss Cheese-like, dismembered clusters of land, making the Palestinian State proposition non-viable. It will also make life impossible for the Jews left in their West Bank enclaves and be a security nightmare for even the powerful IDF. Everyone will suffer and it will not stand in the long run. Look at South Africa: after introducing in 1948 the apartheid regime, which is similar to what you now want to do, civil war started which lasted 50 years, until in the apartheid regime was abolished in 1994 and black South Africans were given equal rights to whites. So let’s just skip the 50-year war between us. Please go ahead and annex the entire West Bank. This way, Palestinians will immediately have equal rights to Israelis in one state to be called Israel-Palestine. I am sure that your right-wingers and my right-wingers will love this idea.”
Clearly, Bibi will not agree to annex the entire West Bank. But, if Abu Mazen publicly demanded that Bibi either annex the entire West Bank or abstain from taking any annexation step, perhaps this may stop Bibi from proceeding. Whether Bibi considered a plan for the day Palestinians ask to be a part of Israel – moving the Palestinian cause from separation from Israel, to absorption into it – is unknown. But in annexing parts of the West Bank, Bibi may be aiding and abetting the “one-state” supporters from both anti-Israel Palestinian groups and international activists he so despises.
But rest assured. Abu Mazen will not take this bold approach to put Bibi on the horns of such a dilemma. However, there is nothing else that Abu Mazen can do to change Bibi’s mind. At the end of the day, the key to neutralizing the ticking annexation time bomb is held exclusively in the United States’ hands.
Were it not for President Trump’s “peace plan,” which first proposed the idea of Israeli unilateral annexation of 30% of the West Bank, we would not be in this messy situation, in need of a way for both President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu to climb down from the top of the tree they’ve have ascended on the issue of unilateral annexation of the settlements. Since the Likud-Blue and White unity government agreement specifically conditions annexation on U.S. approval, the only face-saving option for preventing annexation, or at least preventing full annexation, is to find a way for the U.S. to dictate that Israel hold off.
The path for such a dictation has already been established by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In his remarks in a press briefing on April 22, 2020 he said:
״As for the annexation of the West Bank, the Israelis will ultimately make those decisions. That’s an Israeli decision. And we will work closely with them to share with them our views of this in [a] private setting.”
Hoping that the United States has, by now, already recognized that proceeding with unilateral annexation will have potentially catastrophic ramifications for Israel, here are a few ideas for Secretary Pompeo to consider for adoption and sharing with the new government of Israel in a private setting:
1. Annexation: Yes, but only as part of an Israeli-Palestinian Agreement. In other words, the revised U.S. position will be that the Trump Administration still supports the position that Israel should be allowed to annex 30% of the West Bank, but Israel must first accomplish an agreement with the Palestinians along the lines of Trump’s “peace plan.” Only after that agreement has been reached would Israel be able to proceed to annex. That approach will defer the annexation indefinitely.
2. Unilateral annexation: Yes, but only if Israel also simultaneously transfers to the Palestinians the Israeli sovereign territory that is supposed to become part of the Palestinian State under Trump’s “peace plan.” Under Trump’s “peace plan,” as part of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel would transfer to the future State of Palestine Israeli sovereign territory of almost equal size, in compensation for the 30% of the West Bank that Israel will annex (although much of this territory is undeveloped land in the Negev Desert). Since it is inconceivable that the Likud will agree to do so now, this approach will guarantee that Israel will not unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank.
3. Unilateral Annexation: Yes, but only in phases. Under this approach, Israel will not annex immediately ALL the Jewish settlements and ALL the Jordan Valley; rather, annexation will proceed along several phases, where the first one will be the least controversial or disqualifying of a two-state outcome, and subsequent phases will have no definitive time-frame for implementation. Each step will be conditioned on a separate U.S. approval. For instance, the first phase could involve annexation of only those Jewish settlements that lay close to the current border separating between Israel and the West Bank and which, even under the Palestinian view, through land-swaps would become part of Israel in the context of an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty.
4. Unilateral Annexation: Yes, but with an important caveat. Under this approach, the United States will green light immediate unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank, but it will insist the Israeli annexation law include a clear statement that, notwithstanding other provisions of the annexation law or any other Israeli law, applying Israeli law to any part of the West Bank under the annexation law will not prejudice or preempt the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations regarding the future of the West Bank. While this is the least preferred option, it will nonetheless signal to the Palestinians that applying Israeli law to parts of the West Bank is not final. This approach also will neutralize the harsh impact of the Israeli Referendum Law, which would make the annexation legally and practically irreversible. As I have explained, under that law, reversing annexation requires the support of at least 80 members of the Israeli 120-member Knesset, or alternatively, holding a public referendum – a procedure that has never been attempted in Israel – with at least 50% of all Israelis supporting Israel’s ceding sovereign territory (a tall order).
These ideas constitute only the main options and they may each be used alone or in combination with one another. There may be other, similar ideas or variations on these ideas that will also prevent unilateral Israeli action, delay it or modify it, so as to significantly lessen annexation’s potentially disastrous impacts.
Each of these ideas requires only a minor adjustment in the current U.S. position, which will allow the Trump Administration to maintain that it has not changed its original position on Israeli annexation of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley, and thus allowing the Administration to save face. Each of these ideas also will save Israel from shooting itself in the foot – the least one can hope for from “Israel’s best friend.”