Mapping Netanyahu’s annexation plan: Experts explain a charged, complex process
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Inside storyUS-Israel mapping team members seen out in field only once

Mapping Netanyahu’s annexation plan: Experts explain a charged, complex process

Ex-officials tasked with similar challenges in past lay out the complexities of drawing up borders; US-Israeli map committee mum on progress, kept off the ground by pandemic

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center left) and Yesha Council chairman David Elhayani seen during a tree planting event for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, in the West Bank settlement of Mevo'ot Yericho, in the Jordan Valley on February 10, 2020.  (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center left) and Yesha Council chairman David Elhayani seen during a tree planting event for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, in the West Bank settlement of Mevo'ot Yericho, in the Jordan Valley on February 10, 2020. (Flash90)

Members of the US-Israeli mapping committee tasked with drawing up the borders of the Trump peace plan have been seen out in the field just once since Washington unveiled its proposal nearly six months ago.

That expedition, to the northern West Bank’s Ariel settlement, took place in late February, weeks after the plan’s architect Jared Kushner said the joint team would be “going line by line and street by street to decide where to put the borders.”

Over three months have passed since, during which the coronavirus pandemic has somewhat understandably kept the map-drawers from crossing the Green Line to pick up where they left off.

Both Israeli and American officials have recognized, at least behind closed doors, that the mapping committee will therefore be unlikely to complete its work by July 1, the date on which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to move forward with annexation.

But with neither side willing to comment publicly on their progress, Israelis and Palestinians have been left in the dark on the crucial decisions being made that could determine the future borders of their states.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, center, and then-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)

In an effort to better understand the challenges the cartography committee is tasked with addressing, The Times of Israel spoke with several former Israeli officials who filled lead roles in similar mapping projects.

They explained that given the complex nature of the job and the inability of members to make trips to the West Bank, the delay is to be expected. They also sketched out the key questions that the current mapping team will have to answer in order to return to Netanyahu with the final borders for his unilateral annexation plan.

‘It isn’t just opening Google Maps’

The current mapping committee is made up of Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin (Likud), National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat, Prime Minister’s Office director Ronen Peretz, and Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer on the Israeli side; and Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, his adviser Aryeh Lightstone, and the US National Security Council’s Israel and Palestinian affairs director Scott Leith from the American side.

Save for Leith — who has not even been able to travel to Israel since the pandemic outbreak —  and Ben-Shabbat, the military experience on the committee is notably limited. This contrasts starkly with the Israeli government’s strategy for mapping out the route of the West Bank security barrier in the early 2000s, when the Defense Ministry was put in charge of the effort.

The security barrier and Shuafat Refugee Camp, northeast of Jerusalem, on December 5, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Our staff approached the subject from a security perspective, rather than a political one,” explained Lior Schillat, an adviser to former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who commissioned the barrier’s construction.

During the planning and building of the wall, Schillat served as a government liaison, tasked with responding to the security and legal challenges raised to the West Bank security barrier.

The former Sharon adviser did not go as far as to question the makeup of the current committee, which is largely made up of political figures, but he did say that they would need guidance from experts with security and legal backgrounds in order to address the technical challenges of such a project.

“When we say mapping, it isn’t just opening up Google Maps,” said Schillat, who is now the director of the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research. “It means applying complex geographic information system layers that display land ownership and land use.”

“It’s true that there aren’t any new mountains that have suddenly appeared in [the northern West Bank], but there are building plans in progress that need to be accounted for. The territory is extremely complex and dynamic,” he noted.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is briefed on the route of the West Bank security barrier in 2005. (Moshe Milner/Government Press Office)

“The decisions being made today are very politically charged, and therefore the people involved are from the political echelon,” Schillat said. “However, this may be why they’re having a hard time completing the task in the amount of time [initially set out].”

Getting your hands dirty

While just about all international peace proposals have been based roughly on the familiar pre-1967 borders, granting the Palestinians a state on nearly all of the West Bank, the Trump plan forces its mapping committee to enter uncharted waters with its vision that Israel will annex about 30% of the land beyond the Green Line.

Schillat added that the team’s work is even more complex than the project he took part in to map the West Bank security barrier because “our job was to basically draw a line from Beit She’an in the north to Arad in the south. Here, they’re dealing with large sections of land that require visiting every settlement in order to determine how to draw the boundaries.”

Explaining why in-person visits to the field are required, Schillat pointed out that aerial photos from just two or three years ago can easily be outdated as new farming and building projects are constantly being advanced.

Lior Schillat (Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research)

“In order to map the fence trajectory, we walked the length of the entire proposed route in order to see where there might be issues,” added the deputy attorney general under Sharon, Mike Blass.

Blass led the government’s legal responses to the over 100 High Court petitions submitted against various sections of the security barrier’s proposed route, which took nearly five years to complete.

“It’s always nice to sit in an office, but there’s no replacement to going out into he field. Only this way can you see how the lines you’re drawing will impact things like water and electricity infrastructure lines,” he said.

What’s the goal?

Offering a glimpse into the manner in which the current mapping committee might be operating, Schillat said that under Sharon, the work started with a directive from the top stipulating the priorities that were to be kept in mind when drawing the West Bank lines.

What was important to Sharon during the planning of the fence was ensuring that the settlement blocs would be kept on the west side of it, Schillat said. And indeed, this was how the security barrier was drawn, effectively incorporating the West Bank communities most Israelis believe will forever remain part of the Jewish state.

“That was the directive from Sharon. I don’t know what Netanyahu’s directive is to the Israeli members of the mapping committee, but I’d like to think that there is one,” the former PMO staffer said. “Once you have a directive, the staff can head out to the field, and see how and if it can be carried out.”

As for the guidelines issued to the Trump plan’s mapping committee, Schillat speculated that they lie in the answers each sides’ leadership gives to the following questions: Is the goal to annex as much territory as possible or as many people as possible?  What do you consider to be the Jordan Valley? What do you consider to be the settlement blocs? Is annexing one more important than the other? Do you plan to annex Palestinian towns as well?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points at a map of the Jordan Valley as he gives a statement, promising to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea area, in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Some of these questions have already been answered, with one settler leader saying that Netanyahu told them last week that he is trying to annex “as much land as possible within the narrow timeline being granted by the Americans.”

The plan also stipulates that no Israeli (or Palestinian) will have to be uprooted from their home and that Israel will be able to annex all of its settlements. However, Schillat points out, the mapping committee will have to decide what is meant by settlements. “Is it only the built-up land of the settlement? Does the territory extend to the fence of the settlement?  Or perhaps it includes the entire municipal boundaries of the settlement, which can extend well beyond the security fence? Do you include the access roads to those settlements?”

“Only after the leaders have answered those questions can the team then go ahead and get to work,” he said.

Elephant in the room

Schillat added that the lack of Palestinian representative on the mapping committee — not that Ramallah would have agreed to join — is also indicative of the joint body’s priorities.

While the former Sharon adviser sought to avoid passing judgment on the current plan, he did admit to being puzzled by its goal of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, arguing that “it would be extremely difficult” to develop such an entity on the porous land drawn up for the Palestinians on the Trump conceptual map.

Vision for Peace Conceptual Map published by the Trump Administration on January 28, 2020.

IDF reserves colonel and mapping expert Shaul Arieli pointed out that according to the conceptual map released by the US, if the Jordan Valley is annexed and a Palestinian state created, the new border in that territory alone that Israel will be responsible for defending will stretch roughly 550 kilometers — 420 kilometers more than the current border between the West Bank and Jordan.

That new border along the Palestinian state to the west and Jordan to the east — which the mapping committee is tasked with fine-tuning — will extend further than the 460 kilometers that make up the combined distance of Israel’s borders with Gaza, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria because it will also have to wrap around 13 Palestinian enclaves in the Jordan Valley.

Blass added that the mapping committee will also have to be told what their superiors want to do with the Palestinians living on lands slated for annexation.

According to the conceptual map released by the White House at the plan’s January unveiling, the US-backed Israeli annexation of some 30 percent of the West Bank will turn 43 Palestinian villages — almost half of them located in the Jordan Valley — that are home to some 110,000 residents into enclaves detached from the future Palestinian state.

Netanyahu said last month that Israel’s borders in the Jordan Valley will be drawn to circumvent those areas, but did not elaborate regarding whose authority those Palestinians will fall under. They are currently under Israeli military rule, which theoretically would expire once annexation is carried out; “so who would be responsible for them then?” Blass asked.

Netanyahu said that the Palestinian Authority would be responsible for those enclaves, but the PA has not indicated that it will take on that role, instead threatening to draw back its operations in the West Bank if Israel moves forward with annexation.

Mike Blass attends a committee meeting regarding the so-called Regulation Bill on November 28, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

As for private Palestinian land located in areas Israel plans to annex, the former deputy attorney general said that the owners of those parcels would lose their rights to the territory under the Absentee Property Law, and Israel would not even be required to grant them reparations.

Arieli said that if Israel were to nonetheless allow Palestinians to access their lands located inside the territory annexed by Israel, it would have to create dozens of access gates along the newly established West Bank border.

He added that if Israel really wanted to apply sovereignty in the West Bank and erase the Green Line, it would have to remove the checkpoints that exist at various entrances to the territory currently under military control. But once those checkpoints are removed, the only way to prevent the Palestinians from entering the future, enlarged State of Israel would be to surround those 43 enclaves with border fences. At which point, the sides will have to determine how those Palestinians will be able to travel from their enclaves to other places in the West Bank.

Are these the challenges being weighed by the sides? Is this what the mapping committee is being tasked with straightening out?

Shaul Arieli, a former Israeli peace negotiator and retired army colonel, gestures towards the settlement of Maaleh Adumim in the West Bank on September 25, 2007. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

“At some point they need to introduce the public to the concept and give it time to react,” Blass said, criticizing the decision to keep the mapping committee’s progress behind closed doors. Not only have settler leaders been kept out of the loop, but Netanyahu hasn’t even updated Defense Minister Benny Gantz or the army as to how the borders are being drawn up.

“As someone on the mapping committee, you think you’re able to see everything, but there are always things you will miss, and you won’t know what they are unless you give the public a chance to review the plan,” Blass said.

“If someone wants to advance something like this in a democratic country, he needs to present the plan and give the public several weeks to debate something of such wide-scale importance,” he added.

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