After eighteen months of political turmoil, Israel has a new government, co-led by continuing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz. They will rotate as prime minister with each serving in a newly created “alternate prime minister” position when the other is in charge. While ostensibly formed as an “emergency” coalition, designed to address the Coronavirus crisis, according to their agreement Netanyahu can bring annexation of parts of the West Bank to a vote in the cabinet or Knesset as early as July. Should he?
On the one hand, Netanyahu promised during the last election campaign that he would annex the Jordan Valley and all Israeli settlements. He relies on the Trump Administration, which indicated support for such a move when it announced its Israeli-Palestinian “Peace to Prosperity” plan in January. The two countries appointed a joint committee to determine the precise areas to be annexed (up to 30 percent of the West Bank) and recognized as sovereign Israeli territory by the United States.
On the other hand, Israel faces an unusual situation in its relationship with the United States, which it has always sought to sustain on a bipartisan basis. Virtually all elected US Democrats, and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, oppose unilateral annexation. In a video at the AIPAC Policy Conference in March, Biden said: “Israel, I think, has to stop the threats of annexation and settlement activity.”
So the dilemma for Israel’s government is whether to pursue a favored policy that is supported by the incumbent US president, but which is openly opposed by the challenger and opposition party, including many of its members with strong records of supporting Israel.
Why…would Israel take an action that hurts the credibility of those Democrats committed to sustaining their party’s traditional support for Israel?
One option is to move ahead, seizing the ostensible opportunity Trump has presented. Fearing that it would no longer have support for annexation in a Biden Administration, the Israeli government may believe it has an incentive to carry out annexation before November.
An imperfect comparison can be drawn between this case and the public debate in the summer of 2012 over whether Israel should strike Iran’s nuclear facilities during the US presidential election. Supporters of the strike claimed that President Barack Obama, then seeking reelection, would not dare “to go against Israel,” fearing the political consequences. To some, the window of opportunity to act before an American election looks similar, as an incentive exists now regarding annexation. But there is an important difference: while one could argue, theoretically at least, for striking Iran at a specific time because its nuclear capabilities could pose an existential threat to Israel, that is not the case with annexation. Failing to carry out unilateral annexation could not be argued to threaten Israel’s existence.
Opponents of unilateral annexation, Democrats among them, have raised serious concerns about the implications of such a move. They suggest it could: destabilize Israel’s peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt; stall Israel’s improving relations with other Arab states; and undermine pragmatic Palestinian forces, while empowering the hardliner Islamic movement, Hamas. If Israel unilaterally annexes around 30 percent of the West Bank, it could lead to the erosion of security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, and even to its collapse, drawing the Israeli military into the Palestinian cities.
But the heart of Democrats’ argument is on how the strategic US interest in sustaining the close US-Israel relationship as a values-based partnership would be undermined if Israel’s Jewish or democratic character were compromised. “To be frank,” Biden continued in his video at AIPAC, threats of annexation “are taking Israel further from its democratic values, undermining support for Israel… especially among young people in both political parties.” A Pew poll from April 2019 backs up his argument, with younger Democrats and Republicans both holding starkly lower favorable views of the Israeli government than of the Israeli people.
Some Israelis may argue that the Democratic Party is no longer sufficiently supportive of Israel to be a factor in Israeli decision making. According to this theory, disagreements between Israel and the Obama Administration over the Iran nuclear deal and UN Security Council Resolution 2334 marked a fundamental shift. The harsh criticism of Israel by two freshman Members of Congress, Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, and the strong run by Sen. Bernie Sanders in his presidential campaign are taken as further confirmation of the change. Allegedly, a Biden administration would necessarily be captive to these forces in the party, and therefore, Israel must proceed with annexation immediately.
That is nonsense. Biden’s primary victory, indeed, proves the opposite. Whereas some voices more critical of Israel have been heard in the Democratic party, Biden won the nomination while expressing his deep personal bonds with Israel and pledging to keep backing its security and defend it from any form of delegitimization, including the BDS movement. Democratic primary voters chose the candidate who called placing conditions on US assistance to Israel “outrageous” and “a gigantic mistake.” Why, one might ask, would Israel take an action that hurts the credibility of those Democrats committed to sustaining their party’s traditional support for Israel?
Support for a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps remains a consensus policy within the Democratic Party, even as that outcome appears to be getting less and less viable due to the political stagnation between the parties, Palestinian rejectionism, and expanding Israeli settlements. Likewise, there is near-unanimity among Democrats that the Trump peace plan, which envisions a Palestinian “state” with no territorial integrity, economic feasibility, or fulfillment of Palestinian aspirations in East Jerusalem could be the final blow to the dying two-state solution.
That reality might lead other members of the Israeli leadership, notably Gantz and incoming Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, to raise the risks that unilateral annexation would pose. In addition to security burdens and negative Palestinian, regional, and international reactions, they might give voice to the risks to the US-Israel relationship and Israel’s ties with the American Jewish community, where support for two states and opposition to annexation still dominate.
Proponents of annexation will argue that it is unreasonable to go against the plan and encouragement of a friendly incumbent US president who claims that he leaves the decision entirely up to Israel. But for those who prioritize Israel’s bipartisan support in the US, there is a sound argument that any move Israel makes, especially months before a presidential election, should have the sustainable support of a broad, bipartisan majority of Americans. So far, the evidence is that unilateral annexation falls far short of that mark.
Daniel B. Shapiro is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. He served as US Ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017.
Rotem Oreg is a Philosophy, Politics and Economics student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of the novel “Lion Heart”.