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As Israeli voters head to the polls Tuesday, they are faced with more than just a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as this election had been portrayed. More clearly than ever before, they are choosing between keeping alive the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or bidding it farewell by declaring Israeli sovereignty over some or all of the West Bank.
That could some day put Israel in charge of some 2.7 million Palestinians, which brings its own fateful choice: grant them full political rights, and Israel ultimately loses its Jewish character; or deny them rights, and Israel ceases to be a democracy.
Many dismiss Mr. Netanyahu’s unprecedented annexation pledge as a ploy. But their warnings are grave. “For the Palestinians, any sign of annexation will be the end of the Oslo agreements and especially the end of security coordination with Israel,” says Shaul Arieli, a retired colonel who served two prime ministers. He and other experts predict the Palestinian Authority would collapse soon after any kind of annexation. And he adds, “It will be the end of the Zionist vision of a democratic and Jewish state.”
Israelis are used to seeing their prime minister of the past decade, Benjamin Netanyahu, pull rabbits out of a seemingly bottomless hat to keep himself and his Likud party in power.
Four years ago, to mobilize his base, he warned that Arab voters were swamping the polls, later apologizing for playing what critics decried as the race card.
But this year, trailing in the polls to a new centrist alliance, facing indictments for fraud, bribery, and breach of trust, and pressed from rivals on the far right, his election eve vow to annex portions of the West Bank has crossed a new line.
If pursued, it would effectively bury prospects for peace with the Palestinians and lead to an Israel that many analysts say could no longer be considered democratic.
As Israeli voters head to the polls Tuesday they are now faced with more than just a referendum on the hard-line Mr. Netanyahu, as this election had already been portrayed. More clearly than ever before, they are being presented with a choice between keeping alive the possibility of a two-state solution to solve the centurylong Israeli-Palestinian conflict or bidding it farewell by granting Israel eventual control over some or all of the West Bank.
That could some day put the Jewish state in charge of some 2.7 million Palestinians, which brings its own fateful choice: grant them full rights, and Israel ultimately loses its Jewish character; deny them rights, and Israel ceases to be a democracy.
Many analysts, voters, and politicians dismiss Mr. Netanyahu’s unprecedented annexation pledge as a ploy. But their warnings are grave.
“For the Palestinians, any sign of annexation will be the end of the Oslo agreements and especially the end of security coordination with Israel,” says Shaul Arieli, a retired colonel who took part in negotiations under former Labor prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. He and other experts predict the Palestinian Authority would collapse soon after any kind of annexation.
The Palestinians have long argued it would be impossible to establish a contiguous state if it is formed around swaths and patches of Jewish settlements on what they and the international community say is occupied land.
“It will be the end of the Zionist vision of a democratic and Jewish state,” Dr. Arieli says. “We don’t know how many years it will take, but it’s like a domino effect. You start with annexation of Maale Adumim [a sprawling settlement near Jerusalem], which is part of the Israeli consensus, and at the end of the process there will be one state, and it will be an Arab state or apartheid.”
According to polls, most Israelis value the Jewish and democratic nature of Israel and oppose annexation. But after years of political deadlock, calls for full or partial annexation to include what's called "Area C" (under the Oslo Accord) have been gaining traction on the right. That area is home to most of the large Jewish settlement blocs plus as many as 300,000 Palestinians in a hodgepodge of enclaves within it.
Such a step, however, could trigger serious violence that could stretch for years, experts warn.
Kobi Michael, a former deputy director general and head of the Palestinian desk at the Ministry for Strategic Affairs, calls Mr. Netanyahu a “political magician” but says “he will do anything to ensure he will continue to be prime minister. He does not stop at the red lights.”
Annexing Area C “could increase the chance for something like a third intifada, something that is very serious,” adds Dr. Michael, now a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank.
Neither the specter of international condemnation, security warnings, or even his own usually cautious approach to stoking potential unrest deterred Mr. Netanyahu from breaking with his previous aversion to unilateral moves like annexation.
Pressed in an interview Saturday night with an Israeli television station, Mr. Netanyahu said that if the Likud won, Israel would annex part of the West Bank. He was vague – experts say purposefully so – but he was very clear on one point: No Jewish settlements would be left behind, from the large blocs that abut large Israeli cities to the small and isolated ones.
The Trump factor
The consensus in Israel seems to be annexation is not necessarily something Netanyahu plans to truly carry out or even could carry out if he wants to. But political realities have been shifting, especially with regard to the United States.
Under any previous president, the notion of annexation would have been a non-starter. Past U.S. administrations sought to fashion themselves as “fair brokers” negotiating the fragile Israeli-Palestinian relationship in coordination with both sides.
But as Mr. Netanyahu returned home from a meeting with President Donald Trump two weeks ago, there were hints from within his entourage that he may have received a green light from the White House to pursue some form of annexation. A senior source on the plane said Mr. Trump’s formal U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights – itself seen as another pro-Netanyahu election “goodie” to persuade voters – was a precedent for recognizing other captured territory.
“I think everyone understands it’s part of Netanyahu’s propaganda and not more than that,” says Dr. Arieli, “But still, the outcome will depend on the results of the election.”
If the Likud wins and Mr. Netanyahu as its leader forms a coalition with the far-right parties, they will demand that he fulfills this commitment.
“This is about internal political games, not about geopolitics, but he is inviting pressure on to himself along with the chances of sparking unrest and international condemnation,” says Dr. Michael.
Among the possible diplomatic casualties of such an approach would be Israel’s improving ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states. And Israel’s ties with American Jews, many of them long-standing champions of the two-state solution, would no doubt be further compromised, especially amid withering criticism of Israel from progressive Democrats.
According to Zipi Israeli, a research fellow who heads the public opinion department of the Institute for National Security Studies, for the past 30 years Israelis have consistently been in favor of some form of separation from the Palestinians, with recent polls indicating 55% of Jewish Israelis support a two-state solution.
What has also remained consistent, she says, is that the majority of Jewish Israelis fear the kind of binational state that annexation of the West Bank, or parts of it, could bring because one of their primary concerns is maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel.
A civics teacher who wanted to be identified as only Daniel and plans to vote for Meretz, a small left-wing party, says the two-state solution “is almost impossible right now, but it is the only valid option for the long run.”
In some ways he sees Mr. Netanyahu coming out in favor of annexation as a relief. “It takes down the ‘mask’ that ‘We are for peace; we will negotiate with the Palestinians,’” he says. “It’s always better to know the true thoughts and beliefs of our leaders. Now Netanyahu can no longer ‘sell’ that he is for the two-state solution.”
Yaara O., who works in the high-tech field in Tel Aviv, grew up in Alfei Menashe, a West Bank settlement that is part of a large settlement bloc. She does not believe there is currently a partner for peace in the Palestinian Authority leadership and welcomes the idea of annexing the major settlement blocs but not the smaller, more remote ones that are scattered throughout the West Bank.
“My view is that we do need to be more aggressive,” she says, “but I also want to see a Palestinian state one day.”