Netanyahu’s annexation dilemma: Making history, but at what cost?

Why We Wrote This

Just talk of Israel unilaterally annexing West Bank lands is sending shudders through the Middle East, with dire warnings of blowback on several fronts. So what is driving Benjamin Netanyahu? And will he flinch?

Mussa Qawasma/Reuters
A Jewish settler holds an Israeli flag as Palestinians face off with Israeli soldiers during a protest against Israel's plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, in Susya village, south of Hebron, June 19, 2020.

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Benjamin Netanyahu’s government says it is committed on July 1 to start moving formally toward the unilateral annexation of portions of the occupied West Bank. But what would be a provocative step remains cloaked in uncertainty, even as the repeated declarations of intent are already exacting a cost, for Israel and its few partners in the region.

The door to annexation was opened by President Donald Trump’s peace plan, which envisions Israel incorporating hundreds of Jewish settlements alongside and within a Palestinian state. But unilateral annexation risks destroying the prospect for establishing such a state, turning Israel’s democracy into an apartheid entity responsible for 2.7 million noncitizens. It could rupture Israel’s peace with Jordan, and burn ties with Gulf Arab leaders who have endorsed steps toward normalization.

With so much potential downside, and with polls suggesting that less than 5% of the Israeli public considers annexation a top priority, what then is motivating the prime minister?

“Netanyahu thinks that history will be kind to him,” says Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli writer involved in Middle East reconciliation efforts, “if he’s the prime minister who succeeds in placing his imprimatur on the physical contours of the state.”

The billboard next to Tel Aviv’s main highway pictures Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel alongside the country’s iconic founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.

Sponsored by Israeli settler hard-liners who oppose a Palestinian state, the billboard urges West Bank annexation, and contains an admonition: “History will judge.”

Indeed, the region seems to have arrived at a fateful juncture. Mr. Netanyahu’s government says it is committed on July 1 to start moving formally toward the unilateral annexation of portions of the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

For now, however, what would be a provocative step remains cloaked in uncertainty, even as Mr. Netanyahu’s repeated declarations of intent are already exacting a cost, for Israel and its few partners in the region.

The window of opportunity on annexation was opened by President Donald Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, which envisions Israel incorporating hundreds of Jewish settlements alongside and within a Palestinian state.

But unilateral annexation, despite the current coordination with the United States, risks destroying the prospect for establishing such a state, turning Israel’s democracy into an apartheid entity responsible for 2.7 million non-citizens. It could enflame the occupied territories, rupture Israel’s peace with Jordan, and burn ties with Gulf Arab leaders who have endorsed small steps of normalization.

Talk of annexation has already triggered an erosion of cooperation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and stark warnings from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates about a reversal in ties.     

“Netanyahu’s rushed push for annexation so far has deepened cleavages within Israeli society regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, [and] triggered significant downgrading of Israeli-Palestinian civil and security coordination,” says Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. “It nourishes the sense in the leadership in Amman, Ramallah, and the Gulf that to counter annexation fallout and ensure survival,” they would have to downgrade relations.

Debbie Hill/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the area where a new section is to be built in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa on Feb. 20, 2020. Palestinians regard the neighborhood as a settlement.

With so much potential downside for Israel, and with two recent polls suggesting that less than 5% of the Israeli public considers annexation a top priority, what then is motivating Mr. Netanyahu?

“Israel’s last outstanding border remaining to be defined is its most complicated border to the east,” says Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-born Israeli writer involved in Middle East reconciliation efforts. “Netanyahu thinks that history will be kind to him if he’s the prime minister who succeeds in placing his imprimatur on the physical contours of the state.”

Yet his bid for history carries costs for others as well. Unilateral annexation renders President Abbas’ preference for peace talks with Israel laughable and boosts pressure on his government for a muscular response; 71% of Palestinians support severing relations with Israel and abandoning the 26-year-old Oslo peace agreements, according to a June poll. The Palestinian leader has rolled back cooperation with Israel – a move ironically that hurts his own public and threatens to unravel his rule.

Jordanian concerns

And because annexing parts of the West Bank would make a Palestinian state there less viable, it stokes Jordanian King Abdullah’s concern that his country’s majority Palestinian population will claim Jordan as their nation-state. That’s why King Abdullah and Jordanian officials have warned Israel and the U.S. multiple times in the past six months that annexation was a “red line” that would violate the two countries’ peace treaty.

“Jordan is committed to the peace treaty, and it considers the treaty in its national strategic interests,” says Mohammad Momani, a former minister of media affairs. “But if the other side is not abiding by the treaty, then it is only logical for Jordan to reconsider articles within the treaty.”

While Jordan has maintained coordination with Israel on Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City, officials close to the government in Amman say it has downgraded cooperation on communal services.

Ariel Schalit/AP
An aerial view shows the northern West Bank settlement of Ma'ale Efraim in the hills above the Jordan Valley, Feb. 18, 2020. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is weighing whether to annex the valley and all of Israel's far-flung West Bank settlements.

Gulf Arab officials and observers accuse Mr. Netanyahu of jeopardizing a careful and unprecedented thawing of ties that Gulf leaders pursued with Israel at the expense of their own domestic politics. Mr. Netanyahu pushed for normalization without a Palestinian peace agreement by making common cause against Iran, in coordination with Washington.

The Gulf even lent the Trump administration’s “deal of the century” a veneer of legitimacy in hopes it could lead to an agreement on a Palestinian state. But unilateral annexation puts those governments at risk because it threatens to incite grassroots unrest across a region already suffering economically.

Taking the unusual step of penning an op-ed in an Israeli newspaper, Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the U.S., wrote that annexation renders improved security ties and normalization impossible.

“The message from the UAE is very clear: It is either annexation or normalization,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political analyst. “If the Netanyahu government really goes through with annexation, they should expect a huge setback.”

Pushback from Europe and U.S.

Mr. Netanyahu hasn’t laid out the scope of the annexation because he is navigating opposition from multiple directions domestically – ranging from maximalist demands from Jewish settlers who oppose the Trump plan’s call for a Palestinian state, to criticism of annexation by Israeli security experts. He also faces pushback from European countries, and in the U.S. from pro-Israel members of the Democratic Party who warn that shared democratic values are at stake.

Observers have been left to guess whether he will redraw Israel’s borders to incorporate some 30% of the West Bank, where hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers reside, or, more symbolically, extend Israeli law to clusters of large Jewish settlement suburbs of Jerusalem. 

Mr. Netanyahu, the son of a history professor, sees an opening to take advantage of the most pro-Israeli diplomatic initiative ever by a U.S. government, and believes that warnings of local and regional upheaval – and of a rupture with the Arab world – are overblown, says Tal Shalev, a political columnist at Walla! News.

“He doesn’t have any diplomatic achievement for the history books. He wants to be responsible for this move,” she says. “He is not sure that President Trump will be reelected to implement his pro-Israel views. He thinks he has a limited window of opportunity to change the way things are perceived about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Amir Cohen/Reuters
Israelis protest under coronavirus restrictions against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, in Tel Aviv, June 6, 2020.

Mr. Abbas faces a dilemma in that annexation strengthens his militant Islamist rival, Hamas, which controls Gaza. However, endorsing armed resistance to Israel and cutting ties completely risks the implosion of his autonomy government and his political power base.

So far, he has downgraded security cooperation and refused to accept the transfer of Palestinian tax revenues collected by Israel, signaling to Israel about the costs of shouldering responsibility for the welfare of 2.7 million West Bank Palestinians should the Palestinian Authority collapse.

Annexation “is the final blow to the realization of the two-state solution and the peace process. This is the first time that [the Palestinian leadership] is realizing that it’s the formal end,” and that it’s being backed by the U.S., says Diana Buttu, a former member of the Palestinian negotiations team.

“Oslo was supposed to be five years. ... With annexation, the thinking is that we’ve got to put an end to Oslo – that means putting an end to the fundamentals of it, which takes away responsibility from the Israeli authority and shifts it to the Palestinian Authority.”

Postponed move?

However, the pain of shifting the burden to Israel is being shouldered by average Palestinians amid pandemic-induced struggles. Unemployment is on the rise as day laborers from the West Bank can’t reach jobs in Israel, and hundreds of Palestinian medical patients aren’t getting permits to travel for treatment at Israeli hospitals.

Mr. Abbas is taking the middle path “between doing nothing and continuing coordination, and going all the way, in opposition,’’ says Mr. Zalzberg. “He’s trying to signal non-acceptance while keeping the PA intact and the very basic Oslo agreement intact.”

In the end, observers both inside and outside Israel believe Mr. Netanyahu will try to satisfy everyone by postponing the move, or perhaps by making do with a symbolic declaration of sovereignty over settlements around Jerusalem. That would change little on the ground, and could still be digestible, he may feel, by Israel’s Arab neighbors and by the international community while allowing him a place in Israeli history.

Yet, warn Palestinian officials, even a partial measure will justify a severing of cooperation. It would be difficult for Arab countries, too, to accept an attempt at nuanced annexation.

“You can bet that Arab governments will be a hundred times more reluctant to talk about cooperation or peace with Israel,” says Mr. Momani, the former Jordanian official.  “This move is already poisoning the well of good will; if annexation goes through, the whole environment will be poisoned.”

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