With less than a month to go before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he intends to annex portions of the West Bank — a move with potentially immense security and geopolitical ramifications — the country’s security forces remain overwhelmingly in the dark about what exactly the government plans to do.
A verbal statement that does not actually apply Israeli civil law over the territory and thus does not have any real-world implications may result in only limited reactions by Palestinians, but full annexation of all Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley — which Netanyahu has indicated he is considering — would likely result in a far more violent and widespread immediate response. The annexation of only the Maale Adumim settlement or Etzion bloc — both of which are almost guaranteed to remain in Israeli control under any political resolution with the Palestinians — could also result in a potentially more muted response by both Palestinians and the rest of the world.
Without knowing which of these — or if anything at all — will happen next month, the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security service cannot fully plan accordingly and must instead anticipate a broad range of potential immediate reactions to the move by Palestinians, from minor rioting, to widespread terror attacks, all the way up to a full-scale uprising.
These different scenarios would of course require wildly different responses and deployments by the military — from sending in a handful of additional battalions to contain low-level protests, to wide-scale call-ups of reservists to fully reoccupy major Palestinian cities. This would also potentially divert intelligence and airpower resources from the IDF’s current focus on Iran’s activities in Syria and Lebanon to the West Bank.
Beyond the expected immediate violence, the country’s security forces must also prepare for the larger strategic shifts that may come in response to annexation — or extension of sovereignty, as the Israeli government is wont to call it — for instance in a breakdown of the quarter-century peace treaty with Jordan, which has harshly warned Israel against expanding its sovereignty into the West Bank. Israel’s hard-won relationships with other Arab countries, particularly those in the Persian Gulf, could also be threatened, as well as its ties with some European countries.
Annexation could also push Hezbollah and Hamas to launch attacks on Israel, buoyed by a potential nadir in international support of the Jewish state.
And all this comes at a time when the military and the country are still reeling from the devastating effects of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The military and other government institutions kept out of the process will also have to prepare for what it would mean practically to annex portions of the West Bank. If, for instance, the government did extend sovereignty over the Jordan Valley but not to the Palestinian towns and villages inside it, would the people living in these islands of Palestinian territory be able to travel freely between their communities and the rest of the West Bank, or would they require permits, as Palestinians need when entering Israel proper?
Preparing in the dark
The Netanyahu government’s decision to keep Israel’s security services out of the discussions marks a major shift in civil-military relations, particularly in terms of peace negotiations and preparations for territorial moves. In the past, representatives from the IDF and Shin Bet have taken part in such discussions — at least at some stage in the process — in order to provide their intelligence assessments and knowledge of their organizations’ own limitations, to ensure that they are able to operate under the government’s ultimate decision for how to proceed.
Current military officials have refrained from publicly criticizing the government for keeping them out of the talks and have instead relied on an oft-heard statement that the country’s security forces are “prepared for any scenario.”
The IDF and Shin Bet are not the only institutions being kept out of this decision-making process. The Justice Ministry, Foreign Ministry and National Security Council (NSC) have also reportedly been sidelined, making legal and diplomatic preparations impossible as well.
“This is supposedly the final border. You’d think everyone the government could bring in would be involved and that the NSC would be spearheading it,” former deputy national security adviser Chuck Freilich told The Times of Israel over the phone Thursday.
“It’s a remarkable thing that the country’s future is going to be determined in this haphazard fashion,” he said. “I don’t know if even [Netanyahu] knows what we’re doing.”
Even in the negotiations for the Oslo Accords, one of the few cases in which the IDF was kept out of the initial talks, the military was eventually brought in as specific details were being hammered out.
This is supposedly the final border. You’d think everyone the government could bring in would be involved
This has not been the case either in the Israeli government’s current deliberations over annexation or throughout the over two years in which the United States prepared its “Peace to Prosperity” plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“This is a very severe phenomenon. There’s never been something like this in the State of Israel, that maps are being sketched out — which if [annexation] happens, and I hope it won’t happen — that will mark the borders the IDF will have to operate along. And the army hasn’t seen those maps!” Maj. Gen. (res.) Gadi Shamni, a staunch opponent of annexation, told the Knesset TV channel on Tuesday.
“This will be the first time that the IDF will receive maps from the political echelon that will just be dropped on it,” said Shamni, a former military secretary to prime minister Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, and the former head of the IDF Central Command.
Freilich — who worked for decades in Israeli security services — agreed that this situation appears to be nigh unprecedented.
Shamni recalled his time as the commander of the Hebron Regional Brigade when he helped the government develop the maps and plans for the 1997 Hebron Agreement, in which the city was divided into two parts, one under the control of the Palestinian Authority and the other under Israel.
“I personally sketched the map. Of course I had restrictions and they gave me rules, but 10 meters [33 feet] one way or another can have significance in your ability to carry out your missions and protect the lives of residents,” Shamni said.
Besides being kept out of discussions of the precise areas that may be annexed, the military appears to also have been kept in the dark on the exact date for such a move, as a joint Israeli-American committee continues to map out the area Israel plans to annex.
Though Netanyahu initially indicated the move would come around July 1 — the accepted starting point for annexation efforts under his coalition agreement with Defense Minister Benny Gantz — members of his government have indicated that this may be pushed back by several days or weeks, and on Wednesday a source involved in the process told The Times of Israel that annexation could potentially be delayed by several months as the joint US-Israeli mapping committee completes its discussions.
Gearing up anyway
On Wednesday, the top brass of the IDF and Shin Bet held a situational assessment and war game simulating various responses to potential annexation moves.
There is general consensus among security analysts that any degree of annexation would likely result in some kind of violent reaction by Palestinians and diplomatic retaliations by European countries and the Arab world, though there are significant differences in terms of extent.
For instance, Col. (res.) Eran Lerman and Efraim Inbar, of the right-leaning Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security think tank, wrote in a recent position paper that while Israeli security forces must prepare for a potential outbreak of violence, the response by Palestinians may not be as bad as others expect and would give Israel a clear upper hand in future negotiations.
“Such violence may be avoided because many in Ramallah have a stake in preserving stability and they remember the tough Israeli crackdown that followed the so-called Second Palestinian Intifada,” Lerman and Inbar wrote, in an extensive piece that argued in favor of pushing ahead with extending sovereignty to parts of the West Bank in the framework of Trump’s plan.
The pair cited the at-times apocalyptic assessments of how Palestinians in the West Bank would respond to the United States moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, when the actual reaction was far, far more muted, with only a small number of demonstrations across the West Bank and limited violence. (The violent, deadly protests along the Gaza border, in which both Palestinian civilians and terrorists took part, was purportedly in response to the embassy move, but is widely seen as being part of a larger struggle by the Strip-ruling Hamas terror group and Israel.)
“Nevertheless, there is no room for complacency. Careful and intensive diplomatic preparation is vital ahead of the move,” they wrote.
They do not, however, reconcile the inherent difference between a move by the United States regarding the location of its own embassy and a unilateral move by Israel regarding territory that is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians.
Indeed, the United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba, seen as a bridge between his country and Israel, which do not have formal ties but maintain a degree of cooperation, discussed this precise distinction in an interview earlier this week with the Al-Monitor news site.
“This kind of step is not the same as the American Embassy being moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The American Embassy — it’s an American embassy. They have the right to put it wherever they want. This is fundamentally different. It will be seen as escalation,” al-Otaiba said, apparently expressing his country’s view.
Palestinian violence, breakdowns in ties
Other analysts anticipate far greater, more violent responses by Palestinians, in large part due to the potential loss of security coordination with the Palestinian Authority. Though the Israeli military sees the PA as being the greater beneficiary of this security cooperation, the assistance of Palestinian forces has played a major role in reducing the number and severity of terror attacks in the West Bank and Israel in recent years.
The PA has for years threatened to cut off security cooperation in response to Israeli actions it deemed unacceptable, only to either back down completely or — as appears to have occurred in this most recent case of PA President Mahmoud Abbas calling off all coordination — to do so in extremely minor ways without significantly changing the situation on the ground.
Shamni, writing with former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon and former head of the Mossad spy agency Tamir Pardo in Foreign Policy last month, raised such concerns.
“This irreversible step [of unilateral annexation], once taken, is likely to trigger a chain reaction beyond Israel’s control. The tipping point might well be the termination of Palestinian security coordination with Israel,” the three former senior security officials wrote.
The trio was writing on behalf of Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group of over 200 retired top officers from the IDF, Shin Bet, Mossad, Israel Police and National Security Council.
The organization sees full West Bank annexation, as well as potential steps toward it like Netanyahu is proposing, as being primarily a threat to Israel’s nature as a Jewish and democratic country, as it would require Israel to either grant citizenship to the millions of Palestinians living there — potentially altering the country’s demographics to make it no longer majority Jewish — or not offer them citizenship, which would make Israel no longer a democracy.
Freilich, one of the 200 top officers in the group, was hesitant to warn of impending doom if Netanyahu goes forward with unilateral annexation — having incorrectly expected a more violent response to the 2018 embassy move — but said such moves, depending on how they are carried out, could potentially have major ramifications in the short and long term.
Beyond an immediate violent reaction by Palestinians and a true breakdown in cooperation with PA forces, Freilich said Israel may also face diplomatic backlash from Europe — the country’s largest trading partner — in the form of potential sanctions by both the European Union collectively and by individual states, like France. This can be seen in reports that Israel is preparing for the prospect of being excluded from the European Union’s ongoing Horizon 2020 innovation program, which could otherwise grant billions of dollars in research funding.
Arab countries in the Persian Gulf, with whom Israel has been building ties and reportedly working to combat their mutual enemy Iran, may also cut back their cooperation in solidarity with Palestinians.
Jordan, which has a huge Palestinian population and with whom Israel already has an icy peace treaty, could scale back its security cooperation with the Jewish state to the bare minimum that it needs to keep Iranian forces and the Islamic State out. This could limit Israel’s ability to conduct operations and monitor developments in Syria and Iraq, which border Jordan.
“The kingdom’s vast territory has provided Israel with irreplaceable strategic depth allowing for the deterrence, detection, and interception — on the ground and in the air — of hostile forces, primarily from Iran,” Shamni, Ayalon and Pardo wrote.
The key partner
However, Freilich focused much of his concerns on the potential effects annexation could have on Israel’s relationship with the United States, its largest and most important ally.
Though the current administration supports — at least in theory — Israel’s unilateral extension of sovereignty over portions of the West Bank under the framework of US President Donald Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan, this would certainly change if Democratic candidate Joe Biden were elected, Freilich said, noting that there has been a “collapse in support [for Israel] in recent years” by Democrats.
Freilich noted that this past fall, before annexation appeared imminent, several Democratic presidential candidates raised the possibility of conditioning aid to Israel on changes in Jerusalem’s West Bank policies, a concept that was once considered beyond the pale.
“Biden would put the brakes on extreme anti-Israel moves, but the pressure for punishing Israel and cutting back the relationship is growing and it’s already big,” he said.
Do we really want to gain the status of pariah state?
Freilich, along with other Israeli officials, questioned the burning need to annex settlements — where most Israeli laws are already de facto in place — or the Jordan Valley, which is under Israeli military control.
“It’s semi-symbolic, it’s not really going to change anything on the ground,” he said.
“So why do we have to put ourselves against the entire world? The US is the one [apparently supportive] exception and even that might not be the case in a few months,” Freilich said. “Do we really want to gain the status of pariah state?”
He noted that for “one-issue” people, who are only concerned with bringing the biblical land of Israel fully into the current State of Israel, the willingness of the Trump administration to accept such a situation potentially represents a once-in-a-lifetime situation, regardless of the national security and diplomatic repercussions.
“They think that this is a one-time opportunity that will never arise again. It probably is. But not all opportunities are good,” Freilich said.