Lots of bark, some actual bite? How the world will react to West Bank annexation

The international community fiercely opposes the move, but what would it do about it? In this time of pandemic, ‘there will be little patience with Israel,’ ex-Mossad chief warns

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell addresses a video press conference at the conclusion of a video conference of EU foreign affairs ministers in Brussels, April 22, 2020. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool Photo via AP)
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell addresses a video press conference at the conclusion of a video conference of EU foreign affairs ministers in Brussels, April 22, 2020. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool Photo via AP)

On November 16, 1980, prime minister Menachem Begin was asked during an interview with NBC how he thought the international community would respond to an Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights. At the time, a bill extending Israeli law to the disputed area had been introduced on the Knesset floor, but Begin’s government had not yet announced its support for the move.

“As we didn’t yet take any decision about it, I think it is premature to speak about reactions,” he told the interviewer.

About a year later, Begin pushed the Golan Heights Law through the Knesset. The international community’s response was unsurprising, with the United Nations Security Council condemning Israel’s de facto annexation as a “continuing threat to international peace and security.” Resolution 497 passed unanimously, including a “yes” vote by the Reagan administration.

Fast forward four decades: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning to annex all the settlements, the Jordan Valley and other significant parts of the West Bank, with the coalition agreement between his Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White allowing him to advance the issue in the next government as early as July 1.

How would the international community react to this kind of Israeli annexation? There would certainly be plenty of opprobrium, “emergency meetings” by the Security Council and the Arab League, and perhaps a few threats of unspecified “consequences.”

But no one knows for sure whether Netanyahu’s annexation — whose actual impact on the ground is hard to predict — would have concrete negative internationally driven repercussions for Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, center, and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin during a meeting to discuss mapping extension of Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank, held in the Ariel settlement, February 24, 2020. (David Azagury/US Embassy Jerusalem)

Would the European Union enact sanctions against Israel, as it did against Russia after its annexation of Crimea in 2014? Brussels could, for instance, freeze some bilateral agreements, suspend scientific cooperation, cancel the preferential tariffs it grants to Israeli products, or ban West Bank goods altogether. Some individual member states may recall their ambassadors or recognize a Palestinian state.

“Responses vary among countries, but at this phase the concrete consequences of annexation are yet to be spelled out,” said Nimrod Goren, the head of Mitvim — The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. “The type of annexation that Netanyahu will eventually choose to pursue will impact how harsh the international response will be. The reaction of the Palestinians on the ground — whether violent or not — will also be a determining factor.”

Many countries have recently emphasized that unilateral annexations are a violation of international law, which according to Goren shows that challenges to Netanyahu’s move would play out not only bilaterally but also in the international legal arena.

But since the UN and the EU are “limited in their response to annexation due to possible veto by Israel’s allies there, Israel should expect major pushback from countries like France, Germany and Jordan,” he said.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters, February 11, 2020. (Seth Wenig/AP)

The US this week reiterated its support for an Israeli annexation, as long as it’s done in the framework of President Donald Trump’s so-called deal of the century. The administration is sure to veto any attempt to condemn Israel’s move, but at the UN General Assembly a (nonbinding) resolution would pass with an overwhelming majority.

Now is not the time for threats?

Last week, as the Likud-Blue and White coalition deal was published, officials across the globe warned the incoming Israeli government against annexation. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said ominously that Brussels would “closely monitor the situation and its broader implications, and will act accordingly.”

Some EU member states felt that now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, was “not the time for threats” and blocked efforts to issue Borrell’s statement in the name of the entire bloc, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel.

Still, no country beside the US has issued support for an Israeli annexation, and even many of its close friends have advised against it clearly. Germany said it would have “serious, negative repercussions on Israel’s standing within the international community,” and France warned that it “would not pass unchallenged and shall not be overlooked in our relationship with Israel.”

Other countries, including Russia, China, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, Italy, and Norway, made similar statements.

The Palestinian leadership welcomed the “global and principled commitment to the standing and universal application of international law, which strictly prohibits annexation,” and called for “preemptive and concrete measures” against Israel.

There is no way to know if the world will heed Ramallah’s call, but Israel should not wait to find out, said Yigal Palmor, a former spokesperson at Israel’s Foreign Ministry and today a senior official at the Jewish Agency.

“To ignore warnings and admonitions is not a sound policy, no matter how imprecise the threats may be,” he said. “These public signs of resentment should not be dismissed, but rather taken into account and carefully weighed against any planned measures.”

Proponents of annexation often predict that the world will complain for a few weeks and perhaps pass a few toothless resolutions, but that eventually the caravan will move on, without more than a scratch on Israel’s international standing. If Begin had worried about the world’s reaction, he would have never annexed the Golan, or East Jerusalem (by passing a Basic Law declaring the united city to be Israel’s capital in July 1980), they argue.

The number one item on our list of necessities is to restore the health and the economy of Israel. It should supersede any other kind of consideration, including political annexation of areas we control anyway

By contrast, MK Yair Lapid, the incoming opposition leader, is convinced that applying sovereignty over parts of the West Bank would genuinely cause “great damage” to the Jewish state. Any such move would trigger “harsh reactions” from the Palestinians, the Jordanians, the next US administration (in the event the Democrats win back the White House later this year) and of course the Europeans, he said this week.

On the other hand, Maya Sion Tzidkiyahu, who directs Mitvim’s program on Israel-Europe relations, noted that it has been virtually impossible to get all 27 EU member states to agree on statements critical of Israel.

“Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that the EU’s bark will be stronger than its bite,” she said.

Brussels is not expected to take harsh measures, such as suspending the Association Agreement, the main agreement between the two parties, she went on. However, it may still consider other measures, such as excluding Israel from the union’s research and innovation program. This would be painful for the self-proclaimed Start-up Nation, but would also hurt the EU itself, according to Sion Tzidkiyahu.

“One certainty is that under such a dramatic scenario, Israel would still be able to rely on Germany softening the hit of the EU stick,” she said.

Efraim Halevy, a former Mossad chief who also served as Israel’s ambassador to the EU, warned against taking any steps that may antagonize the Europeans.

“Israel’s relationship with the EU is not only political; it’s also economic, scientific and technological. And Israel in its present economic straits, facing probably the biggest economic crisis in its existence — why would we incur the anger of the Europeans?” he told The Times of Israel in a telephone interview this week.

Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy (Flash90)

“The economic damage Israel will incur even if the Europeans don’t cancel all these [bilateral] agreements but simply put them on hold, by far exceeds anything that anyone can imagine today,” he added.

With over a million people out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic, why would Israeli leaders risk increasing tensions with the EU, its most important trading partner? Halevy asked.

“In the current situation, in which the entire world is facing an unprecedented health crisis and economic crisis, there will be little patience with Israel,” he warned.

“We’re in uncharted waters. The number one item on our list of necessities is to restore the health and the economy of Israel. It should supersede any other kind of consideration, including political annexation of areas we control anyway.”

What about the peace deal with Jordan?

In warning Israel against annexing the Jordan Valley, many critics said it could harm Jerusalem’s cold-but-stable peace agreement with the Hashemite Kingdom.

“There is a possibility that Jordan will decide to cancel the peace agreement with us. They said, almost explicitly, that from their perspective this could lead to an annulment of the peace peace treaty,” Lapid said at a press conference in response to a Times of Israel query.

“Almost” appears to be the operative word here, because so far Amman has not expressly stated that it would sever the 1994 peace treaty with Israel.

In a September 2019 interview, King Abdullah warned that a West Bank annexation would have “a major impact on the Israeli-Jordanian relationship.” But he stopped short of threatening to cut diplomatic ties.

US president Bill Clinton, background, applauds as soldiers from the Jordanian army, left, and the Israeli army move together in a show of goodwill at the conclusion of the Israel/Jordan peace treaty signing ceremony at the Wadi Araba border crossing near Eilat in Israel on October 26, 1994. (AP/Marcy Nighswander)

More recently, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi reportedly urged his counterparts in several countries to dissuade Jerusalem from its annexation plans. Implementing them would be “devastating,” would mark the death of a two-state solution, and could have explosive consequences for the region, he was said to have warned his interlocutors. But again, no word about ending the peace deal.

Halevy, who as senior Mossad official played a major role in the establishment of diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Amman, said it was impossible to predict how annexation would affect the peace treaty.

“There is an enormous Palestinian presence in Jordan. No one could tell you at the moment what the reactions would be among the former Palestinians who are now Jordanian citizens,” he said. “If you look at the Jordanian parliament and so forth, it is unpredictable.”

To be sure, to annex the Jordan Valley would risk a dramatic deterioration of already-tense bilateral relations, he stressed. “Once you find yourself on a slippery slope, nobody can predict anything. And nobody can exclude anything, either.”

Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel and currently a fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, agreed that it was impossible to foresee how the kingdom would react to annexation, but suggested that it will likely maintain peace with Israel — simply because it’s mutually beneficial.

Former US ambassador Dan Shapiro speaks at a Times of Israel event in Jerusalem, July 2, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“The peace treaty with Israel serves Jordan’s interests, including through bilateral security cooperation, and making possible a close relationship with the United States, which provides some $1.3 billion a year in assistance,” he said. “The government of Jordan would be very reluctant to give those assets up.”

Michael Oren, a former deputy minister for international relations, put it bluntly: “The king may indeed recall his ambassador from Tel Aviv, suspend a number of bilateral agreements, and protest loudly to Europe and the world. But Jordan cannot cancel the peace treaty and its security relationship with Israel. Those, quite simply, are lifelines,” he told The Times of Israel.

Still, Amman would also need to manage the strong views of its population, Shapiro cautioned. “If there is a strong Palestinian popular reaction to annexation, or if the Palestinian Authority suspends cooperation with Israel or begins to collapse, the Jordanian government might face significant popular pressure to change its posture toward Israel.”

Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist and director of Jordan’s Balad radio station, agreed that a unilateral annexation of the Jordan Valley puts the peace treaty in jeopardy.

“Jordan might be a small country but it has a strong, courteous leader who will not shy away from taking hard decisions,” he said. “I don’t advise the Israelis to test Jordan’s resolve. This is one of the areas where the national interest and public position are in unison.”

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