Annexation: What it means for Israel, the Palestinians, and peace

Oded Balilty/AP
The West Bank Jewish settlement of Mitzpe Yeriho on Jan. 26, 2020. After President Donald Trump presented a Mideast plan favorable to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to move ahead with the annexation of portions of the occupied West Bank, including dozens of Jewish settlements.

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Following President Donald Trump’s announcement of his Middle East peace plan, members of his administration contradicted each other on whether Israel was authorized to unilaterally and immediately annex territory in the West Bank. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, locked in a tight election campaign, appeared poised to do just that before the administration persuaded him to hold off for now.

But the plan’s tacit support for near-term annexation of portions of the West Bank and the Jewish settlements, even before a negotiated deal with the Palestinians, turned previous conflict-resolution paradigms on their heads. Immediate annexation, observers worry, would close the door on the possibility of a negotiated two-state deal, undermine Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his government, rupture Israel’s peace with Jordan, and challenge Israel’s most fundamental assumptions about itself.

“In every criteria that I’m trying to assess it, it’s disastrous. In security, in diplomacy ... in the internal schism that [Mr. Netanyahu] would create in Israel,’’ says Gilead Sher, a peace negotiator two decades ago under former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. It’s “a divergence from the founding vision of the state of Israel as a Jewish, democratic, secure, and moral state; with recognized borders and international legitimacy.”

Why We Wrote This

Mideast peace initiatives through the years have always had their detractors, and the Trump plan is no exception. Perhaps its most explosive idea is that Israel could unilaterally annex portions of the West Bank.

Even before President Donald Trump announced the heavily pro-Israel details of his long-awaited Middle East peace deal, the demands were growing from Israel’s right wing to annex portions of the occupied West Bank.

And in the jumbled aftermath of the announcement a week ago, in which members of the Trump administration contradicted each other on whether the two-state plan authorized Israel to act unilaterally and immediately, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, locked in another tight election campaign, appeared poised to do just that.

But observers fear that immediate annexation would turn into an infamous watershed: closing the door on the possibility of a negotiated two-state deal, undermining Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his government, rupturing Israel’s peace with Jordan, and challenging Israel’s most fundamental assumptions about itself.

Why We Wrote This

Mideast peace initiatives through the years have always had their detractors, and the Trump plan is no exception. Perhaps its most explosive idea is that Israel could unilaterally annex portions of the West Bank.

“In every criteria that I’m trying to assess it, it’s disastrous. In security, in diplomacy, in Israel’s legitimization in the international community, in the internal schism that he would create in Israel,’’ says Gilead Sher, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies who was a peace negotiator two decades ago under former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

“The meaning” of annexation, he says, “is a divergence from the founding vision of the State of Israel as a Jewish, democratic, secure, and moral state; with recognized borders and international legitimacy.”

Amid enormous pressure from Israeli settlers to act, Prime Minister Netanyahu initially had planned a cabinet vote on annexation on Sunday, but the U.S. administration persuaded him to hold off until after Israel’s March 2 election. On Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu promised to immediately bring annexation to a vote if he wins, saying, “We won’t let this great opportunity slip from our grasp.”

The plan’s tacit support for near-term annexation of portions of the West Bank and the Jewish settlements, even before a negotiated deal, turned previous conflict-resolution paradigms on their heads.

The so-called “Deal of the Century” envisions Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley – some 30% of the West Bank and nearly all of the 427,000 Jewish residents there – being incorporated into Israel. A handful of Israeli settlements would remain as enclaves within the Palestinian state, and Israel would have to observe a building freeze in those areas.

In return for the annexation of West Bank lands, the plan suggested, subject to approval, that Israel would swap Israeli Arab towns adjacent to the West Bank as well as portions of the Negev desert.

But, Mr. Sher argues, since unilateral annexation would be rejected by the Palestinians and preclude formation of a Palestinian state on the remaining land, it would create a one-state reality between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. And that, he said, would force Israel to choose between offering citizenship to 2.2 million Palestinians residing in the West Bank – creating a binational state – or relegating them to a permanent autonomy akin to apartheid.

“Zionism never aspired to govern another people,” he says.

Palestinian Authority

Unilateral annexation also would weaken the credibility of the doctrine President Abbas has advocated for the last 15 years – negotiating a peace with Israel while rejecting an armed conflict.  

“This is a big strike at the strategy that the current Palestinian leadership is promoting: a two-state solution through peaceful negotiations,’’ says Ghassan Khatib, a professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank and a former Palestinian Authority spokesman. “This is what [Mr. Abbas] stands for politically, and it’s not working. So, he is in big trouble because this is creating a big gap between the public and the leadership in Palestine.”

Before gaining statehood, the Palestinians would have to meet a number of Israeli and U.S. prerequisites, such as disarming Hamas and recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Few expect the Palestinian leadership to comply with such conditions.

Mr. Abbas, who wasn’t invited to the White House rollout of the plan, is already in a weak position. Nearly two-thirds of Palestinians want the Palestinian Authority president, originally elected in 2005 to a five-year term, to resign.

Moreover, many Arab governments in the region are focused inward, and on developing fledgling ties with Israel, rather than focused on the Palestinian cause. That said, the Arab League decision Saturday to explicitly reject the Trump plan was a positive surprise for the Palestinian leadership. Mr. Abbas’ defiance has also won praise from politicians in his rival, Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.

Annexation, however, is liable to undermine security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian security forces. It could also prompt a spike in unrest in the Palestinian territories – scenarios that could lead to the unraveling of the Palestinian government.

“The Palestinian leadership has to ask themselves difficult questions about how they can effectively counter this plan,’’ says Tareq Baconi, an analyst on Israel and the Palestinians at the International Crisis Group. “The present trajectory is very much moving away from any kind of viable Palestinian state.”

Analysts believe annexation could spur unrest in Jordan, which has a Palestinian majority, and threaten the stability of the monarchy, which has been a quiet strategic partner of Israel.

Legal status

Unlike East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed and are under Israeli civil law, the West Bank is under the legal regime of Israel’s military government.

Many observers, however, consider Israel’s policy of promoting settlement expansion as a de facto annexation. Mr. Baconi notes that Israel’s government has taken steps in recent years that effectively advanced de jure annexation, such as passing a law allowing settlement housing on Palestinian property to be retroactively legalized. 

On Tuesday, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that annexation of the West Bank, if implemented, “could not pass unchallenged.” Indeed, the Palestinians could use annexation to challenge Israel in international forums and in international courts.

The International Criminal Court is already mulling the merits of a potential war crimes suit against Israel for actions in Gaza and the West Bank; annexation would likely strengthen the case, says Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer who has represented Palestinians in the West Bank against the government.

Annexation would complicate cooperation with countries whose policy it is to differentiate between Israel and the occupied territories and “eliminate the only possible defense from the charge of apartheid – that the discrimination of a dominated group is temporary,” he says.

Israeli politics

For years, residents of the settlements have lobbied Israel’s government to pursue annexation, hanging roadside signs in the West Bank calling for “sovereignty.” The settler right wing considers annexation a recreation of the Jewish people’s historic presence in biblical Judea and Samaria.

Establishing a Palestinian state on 70% of the West Bank, on the other hand, is viewed as blasphemy. After Mr. Netanyahu backed down from immediate annexation, settler leader David Elhayani complained in the newspaper Makor Rishon that the prime minister was tricked by President Trump.

For now, annexation and the Trump plan have shot to the top of the Israeli election campaign. Gideon Saar, a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, called on the prime minister to take advantage of the Trump declaration and “speedily” annex the settlements.

Surveys by Israel’s Channel 12 and 13 showed about half of the public in support.

Israeli peace activists warn it would create an apartheid reality and destroy any prospects for an agreement. They argue that while the Trump plan’s aspiration for peace, a two-state solution, and territorial swaps are laudable, the road map for implementation is disturbing.

“It has nothing to do with a two-state solution,” says Yariv Oppenheimer, the former director of Peace Now, at a demonstration against the agreement Saturday. “Its purpose is to continue the occupation and make it permanent.”

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