“We will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state… The territorial question will be discussed as part of the final peace agreement.” — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speech to the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University, June 14, 2009
“We have an opportunity that hasn’t existed since 1948 to apply sovereignty in a wise way and as a diplomatic step in Judea and Samaria, and we will not let this opportunity pass… We have a target date in July to apply sovereignty and we will not change it.” — Netanyahu remarks to Likud MKs in the Knesset, May 25, 2020
A radical misconception has taken shape in the four months since US President Donald Trump unveiled his Middle East peace proposal, “Peace to Prosperity: A vision to improve the lives of the Palestinian and Israeli people.”
While the Palestinian Authority, characteristically and predictably rejectionist, has refused to engage with the Trump administration over the plan, the Israeli government, and especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has delightedly embraced it. Indeed, Netanyahu is promising, almost daily, that a month from now, in accordance with the terms of his unity coalition agreement, he will begin implementing it — or, more accurately, that Israel will begin unilaterally annexing some 30 percent of the disputed West Bank, covering all the settlements and the Jordan Valley, in ostensible compliance with the proposal’s provisions.
In fact, however, the painstakingly compiled Trump plan neither explicitly nor implicitly provides for any such immediate and unilateral Israeli annexation. It was, rather, explicitly designed “for the benefit of Palestinians, Israelis and the region as a whole” as a recommended basis for direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiation on a “realistic two-state solution.”
For the vision’s framers, led by Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, to have promised one side, Israel, all the territorial gains of the intended accord up front, would have subverted that stated goal, wrecking the entire process. They didn’t.
The basis for Netanyahu’s repeatedly promised gallop toward the US-backed extension of Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, rather, lies in a curious, jarring paragraph included in Trump’s speech at the White House unveiling: “We will form a joint committee with Israel to convert the conceptual map into a more detailed and calibrated rendering, so that recognition can be immediately achieved,” Trump said.
That single sentence was internally contradictory: How can recognition be “immediately achieved” if you first have to establish the joint American-Israeli mapping team and draw up the maps? It was, further, undermined by what the president said precisely three sentences later, when he offered the same promise of recognition but without specifying the timing: “And the United States will recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territory that my vision provides to be part of the State of Israel. Very important.” And it stands at complete odds with the declared vision of an unfolding process gradually yielding a negotiated agreement, as specified in the plan itself: “The final, specific details of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreement, must be worked out directly between the parties.”
That the extension of Israeli law to those areas and their residents has not yet happened is because Kushner intervened. Today, the administration is broadcasting ambivalence
No sooner was the White House ceremony over, however, than a euphoric Netanyahu began promising that the expansion of Israeli sovereignty — the extension of Israeli law to the West Bank settlements, home to some 450,000 Jews, and the Jordan Valley — would begin within days. And the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a longtime settlement advocate who is close to Trump and who was deeply involved in the formulation of the proposal, was indicating that this would be acceptable.
That the extension of Israeli law to those areas and their residents has not yet happened is because Kushner intervened with what amounted to a public slapdown of both Netanyahu and Friedman: Asked on January 29 whether the Trump administration would support an immediate decision by Israel to annex the Jordan Valley and West Bank settlements, Kushner answered: “No,” elaborated that “we would need an Israeli government in place” before moving forward, and noted that work on “the technical stuff” was only beginning — a stance that mandated a delay of at least several months.
Flash forward to the present day, and Israel finally does have a fully functioning government in place, and the joint mapping committee has presumably made progress despite the complications of the new COVID-19 reality. Still, however, the administration is broadcasting ambivalence.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said repeatedly, including in Israel last month, that a decision on annexation is Israel’s to make — signaling tolerance rather than full-throated enthusiasm. And his spokeswoman conspicuously avoided a simple “yes” when asked, in a telephone briefing for Israeli reporters soon after the Pompeo visit, whether Israel has a “green light” for annexation. Indeed, she signaled opposition to unilateral action by saying that annexation “should be part of discussions between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
Kushner and Friedman, of late, have been saying very little at all.
An administration divided from the start
The disconnect between the carefully crafted provisions of the “Vision” document and the strange, internally contradictory paragraph in Trump’s speech about “immediately” implementing annexation underlines the sense — evident from that historic day at the White House all the way to the present — that the Trump plan means two very different things to two very different White House camps:
For Kushner and his people, the Trump plan is a genuine effort at peacemaking, designed to lead to a deal that will be safe and beneficial for Israel, with provisions on Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem and the modalities of a future Palestinian state that firmly reflect Israeli government interests — good for the region, and a landmark achievement for himself and his father-in-law. The president’s sentence providing for rapid annexation constituted something of a threat or a wake-up call, designed to impress upon the Palestinians and potential Arab interlocutors that the administration is serious and prepared to play hardball in order to get the process moving.
For Friedman and his people, by contrast, the Trump plan is a means rather than an end. It is an admirable effort at peacemaking but a doomed one — a vision that, as they knew it would, foundered on the rocks of Palestinian intransigence even as it was launched. Unlike previous US-brokered peacemaking efforts, however, this time there is a price for the Palestinians to pay and a benefit for Israel to attain — the extension of sovereignty into the biblical Judea and Samaria. Thus, the president’s declared readiness to immediately recognize Israeli annexation was not a threat but a promise — a promise that can and should be honored; indeed, should already have been honored.
Netanyahu is championing Annexation Now as though it were always his mantra, rather than something he had hitherto firmly avoided during more than 5,000 days in office as the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history
Netanyahu’s strange new bedfellows, Blue and White party leader “Alternate Prime Minister” Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, sit firmly in the Kushner camp in their enthusiastic endorsement of the Trump plan as written — regarding it as a constructive basis for a negotiated accord that goes further than any previous US blueprint to guarantee a future Palestinian state will not endanger Israel militarily or demographically. They have been far more circumspect as regards unilateral annexation.
The prime minister is adamant about annexation, having shifted dramatically from the readiness for wary negotiation on Palestinian statehood he espoused in his Bar-Ilan University address 11 years ago (cited at the top of this piece). Indeed, he is championing Annexation Now as though it were always his mantra, rather than something he had avoided — indeed opposed, acutely concerned by the dangers of a single bi-national state between Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea — during more than 5,000 days in office as the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history.
Netanyahu may yet pull back from the brink. Gantz and Ashkenazi may yet urge a rethink. The security establishment may yet find its voice.
But the last word on whether we are to see Annexation Now, or Annexation Later, maybe, in the context of a negotiated deal, likely rests with Trump. The US president in February 2016 memorably declared that he had no particular preference for a one-state or a two-state solution. Since then, however, he took a position, he put his White House clout behind a proposal, and he could settle this spectacularly fateful standoff with the simple instruction: Give my peace plan a chance.
No to Palestinian statehood today; yes to retaining the two-state option
This writer shares the consensual Israeli opposition to relinquishing large swaths of West Bank territory to the Palestinians now or in the near future. Leaving Lebanon in 2000 brought the Hezbollah terror group to our northern frontier, a major war in 2006, and countless rockets and missiles, all pointed in our direction, to be fired at the discretion of its patron Iran. Leaving Gaza in 2005 led to the Hamas takeover of the Strip, three major rounds of conflict, and much of Israel vulnerable to any decision by the terror group to restart hostilities.
Unilateral annexation would be an unmitigated disaster for Israel, an indefensible decision in the full meaning of that word
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t directly orchestrate terrorism in the way his unlamented predecessor Yasser Arafat did, but he demonizes Israel by seeking to sever it from its Jewish history, he incites against us, he funds the terrorists who try to kill us. And he walked away from a 2008 offer by then prime minister Ehud Olmert — when a leader truly seeking peace would have stood in Olmert’s doorway, preventing the prime minister’s then-imminent resignation, until the deal was signed.
Nonetheless, unilateral annexation — the move Netanyahu is signaling absolute determination to execute in the next few weeks — would be an unmitigated disaster for Israel, an indefensible decision in the full meaning of that word.
We need a Jewish and a democratic Israel; unilateral annexation risks subverting that: As of its 72nd Independence Day in April, Israel’s population was some 9.2 million — 74% Jews, 21% Arabs, 5% other. In Israel, plus the West Bank and Gaza, by contrast, figures put to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last year suggest that there are now about as many non-Jews as Jews. Those statistics are ferociously contested, but there can be no credible doubt that Israel will lose its overwhelming Jewish majority if it is forever intertwined with millions of Palestinians. It would thus either no longer be a “Jewish state” or would have to debase its democracy to claim still to be so.
The Jews’ connection to their homeland is centered on the biblical Judea and Samaria, but our historic ties to that land cannot outweigh the imperative to maintain a modern Jewish and democratic Israel.
The two-state ‘solution’ may be inoperable at present, but a one-state ‘solution’ is no solution at all
Separation from the Palestinians is not feasible now; it’s far too dangerous. The territory we vacate will be used against us. But unilateral annexation would constitute a major step toward a permanent entanglement — surrounding the Palestinians, creating Israeli enclaves in Palestinian areas here, Palestinian enclaves in Israeli areas there. It would be a body blow to the goal of political separation, and possibly spell the demise of the two-state framework upon which Israel was internationally revived.
The two-state “solution” may be inoperable at present, but a one-state “solution” is no solution at all for the Jewish nation. It would mark the end of the regathered Jewish people’s capacity to determine its own fate within the internationally backed contours of its modern state.
Unilateral annexation would undermine international tolerance for Israel’s presence in any part of the West Bank: As things stand, Israel’s military and civilian presence in West Bank territory beyond the pre-1967 lines is generally regarded, at home and abroad, as a temporary situation yet to be resolved in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Some proponents of unilateral annexation argue that Israel has to create new facts on the ground — in this case, asserting full sovereignty over those parts of the territories it aims to always retain — in order to present the rejectionist Palestinian leadership and people with a fait accompli.
In fact, however, unilateral annexation will do nothing to reduce Palestinian intransigence. The immediate consequences on the ground could be catastrophic, with the risks of bloodshed and regional turmoil.
But even if that does not happen — and it did not happen when Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, when he moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, or when he endorsed Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights — unilateral annexation is certain to reduce, not boost, international tolerance and support for Israeli activity anywhere in the West Bank, changing a situation that is currently widely, if reluctantly, tolerated into one that is widely challenged.
Netanyahu, Friedman and other advocates of unilateral annexation claim it will rightfully and belatedly entrench Israel’s control over vital areas of the West Bank. On the contrary: It would unite almost the entire world — except for an American president who could be out of office in months, and will be gone in a few short years — in saying that Israel’s entire role in the West Bank is unacceptable.
A one-sided, internationally opposed expansion of sovereignty today would undermine the mainstream Israeli goal of permanently annexing the major settlement blocs (with land swaps) and maintaining long-term security control over the Jordan Valley under a negotiated accord. A situation in which Israel’s presence in the disputed territory is seen as problematic would become one in which Israel’s presence is regarded as illegitimate and in urgent need of reversal.
Unilateral annexation would weaken bipartisan US support for Israel: Israel’s physical well-being depends on its strategic partnership with the United States. We ask no outside power to risk lives in our front-line defense, but the partnership is crucial for Israel militarily — in terms of weapons development, intelligence sharing and more. It is crucial to Israel diplomatically — with the US firmly in Israel’s corner, batting away endless, often outrageous initiatives that seek our harm. It is crucial to Israel psychologically — our multiple enemies in this region are deterred not only by our resilience and demonstrable capacity to defend ourselves and thwart their schemes, but by the fact that we have a superpower alongside us, sharing our interests and values.
Unilateral annexation, however, risks alienating much of the Democratic Party, which regards the one-sided expansion of Israeli sovereignty as the death knell for viable Palestinian self-determination. A Democratic president could be expected to reverse a Trump presidency’s recognition of unilaterally declared Israeli sovereignty in West Bank areas sought by the Palestinians for a state — and thus any ostensible benefit to Israel of such recognition would be short-lived. But the move risks damage that would take far longer to heal within the rank and file of the Democratic Party, turning previous supporters of Israel into skeptics regarding its commitment to core, shared values, and thus eroding the bipartisan US-Israel relationship.
Unilateral annexation would alienate friends in Europe: Much of the European Community is impatient with Israel, and has long been deaf to Israeli arguments that it has tried hard to negotiate with the Palestinians but cannot reach an accord when the other side demands concessions that put Israel at existential risk. Nonetheless, key European powers have proved empathetic, offering practical, diplomatic and rhetorical backing.
Formally cementing a sovereign presence in the disputed territory will exacerbate the criticism, and more support will ebb away, among even our staunchest European allies.
The argument that we seek peace and are thwarted by our neighbors’ intransigence is already doubted, and often rejected, by a large proportion of Diaspora Jewry
A Diaspora divided: Much the same can be said, crucially, for many of the members of our own tribe. Again, the argument that we seek peace and are thwarted by our neighbors’ intransigence is already doubted, and often rejected, by a large proportion of Diaspora Jewry. An Israel that has asserted sovereignty in the West Bank — not at the culmination of a negotiated process, but as a one-sided act — would be an Israel increasingly alien to a growing portion of Diaspora Jewry; we would be an Israel they would reject.
Our own national identity: Then, of course, there is the not insubstantial matter of what we ourselves, we Israelis in whose interests Netanyahu and his government are ostensibly acting, would make of the Israel we would become: Will we still consider ourselves to be a nation committed to and governed by our foundational principles? Will we accept the arguments our leaders will make — that Netanyahu is already making — justifying and legitimating unilateral annexation?
The Trump plan maps out a future reality in which some 15 Jewish settlement “enclave” communities would remain in place, under Israeli sovereignty, inside a future Palestinian state. That scenario already creates not only considerable security challenges, but complications regarding two different legal structures applying in adjacent areas.
As explained by Netanyahu in an interview on the eve of Shavuot, however, such complications are dwarfed by his declared vision for the status of the tens of thousands of Palestinians who live in the Jordan Valley areas he intends to annex.
These Palestinians, he specified, will not be eligible for Israeli citizenship despite living in Israeli sovereign territory. Rather, those areas “will remain as Palestinian enclaves,” he told the Israel Hayom daily. “You don’t annex [the Palestinian city of] Jericho [which has a population of some 20,000]. There are one or two clusters [of Palestinian residential areas] where you don’t have to extend sovereignty; [their residents] will remain Palestinian subjects, you might say, but [overall Israeli] security control will apply there.”
Such a reality will play into the hands of the Palestinians and those critics who have long asserted, falsely, that Israel is an apartheid state, practicing institutionalized racial segregation against the Palestinians.
As things stand, the Palestinians are not second-class citizens in sovereign Israel; rather, they are neighbors in adjacent, disputed territory with whom we have been unable to negotiate the resolution of our conflict. Unilateral annexation of chunks of the West Bank — involving, we are now told, the creation of Palestinian enclaves within Israeli-ruled territory, with their inevitable South Africa echoes — creates a different reality, grievously weakening Israel’s arguments. And we will have lost many of those who hitherto rallied to our defense.
Empowering opponents; weakening allies: Unilateral annexation will add fuel to the fire of the boycott-Israel movement, widening support for punitive measures against Israel, constraining and deterring Israel’s defenders, further isolating Israel — again, set only against the support of an American president whose endorsement can be swiftly reversed.
It will likely chill or freeze our warming ties with various regional players — notably in the Gulf — who share Israel’s concern about the threat posed by the ayatollahs in Iran, and some of whom have been gradually weaning their citizenries off the long-indoctrinated falsehood that responsibility for all ills can be laid at the door of the Zionist interlopers.
There is no definitive knowing whether Israel’s precious peace agreements with Egypt and with Jordan would survive unilateral annexation. But Jordan has already said that it would review relations, and there can be no doubting the heightened instability that annexation would cause in the kingdom, the elevated threat to the monarchy.
Trump’s plan; Trump’s responsibility; Trump’s opportunity
It may be that Netanyahu’s relentless promises to implement unilateral annexation from July 1 do not reflect the full story. It may be that, behind the scenes, the Trump administration is already indicating that now is not the time — that it has taken seriously the warnings from Jordan, the Saudis, Europe et al.
It may be that, in the complex, sophisticated, sometimes unfathomable political long game that Netanyahu plays, in which international diplomacy and security, domestic politics and his corruption trial are all unfolding simultaneously, he will smoothly shift to a public stance of regret in the next month — casting blame upon Gantz, or the settlers who are protesting the deal’s provisions for Palestinian statehood, or regional complications.
Unilateral annexation isn’t merely absent from Trump’s ‘Peace to Prosperity’ vision. It shatters that vision
Or it may be that, helming a big coalition which includes the relative moderates of Blue and White but excludes the settler champions Yamina, Netanyahu will change course just a little, and declare that he and his partners in the Trump administration are espying faint signs of a willingness by the Palestinians to engage, or a willingness by others in the region to help press them to engage, and thus that unilateral annexation, seemingly so urgent, is now better reserved as a card perhaps to be played later.
To watch Netanyahu over the years is to know how effectively such shifts can be presented, and previous stances relegated to history. Consider, for instance, what he said at Bar-Ilan, as compared to what he says today, and what he could say tomorrow.
But ultimately, it was Donald Trump who unveiled his “Peace to Prosperity” vision in the East Room of the White House on January 28, 2020. It is Donald Trump who can determine whether Netanyahu presses ahead with unilateral annexation.
And the fact is that unilateral annexation isn’t merely absent from Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” vision. It shatters that vision.
An act of bad faith
The urgency with which Netanyahu is now pushing for unilateral annexation, it is also worth noting, constitutes a veritable act of bad faith, whisper it, in Trump’s re-electability.
An unconfirmed Israeli Channel 13 report last month claimed Netanyahu’s long-time, highly trusted ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been energetically advocating Annexation Now in part because of a concern that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden “could win” in November, and the moment for action will have passed.
An Israeli prime minister properly confident that his US presidential ally is heading safely to reelection would be indicating that there is plenty of time, and that he wants to give his good friend Jared Kushner’s painstakingly constructed blueprint every chance of success
An Israeli prime minister properly confident that his US presidential ally is heading safely to reelection need not be hurtling full tilt to one-sidedly reap the pickings of the White House peace plan, when a little more patience and confidence in the proposal offers the potential for substantive progress, with the Palestinians and others in the region.
An Israeli prime minister properly confident that his US presidential ally is heading safely to reelection would be indicating that there is plenty of time, and that he wants to give his good friend Jared Kushner’s painstakingly constructed blueprint every chance of success.
The president has put on the table a plan that is both very carefully calibrated, and very widely regarded as good for Israel. It was drawn up with Israel’s interests uppermost in mind. It is eminently reasonable that Trump make clear he’s expecting Israel to demonstrate good faith in it, not speed off with the territorial spoils and leave it looking like a scam.
One simple presidential tweet would do it: A ten-second blur of thumbs, maybe a spellcheck, to reassert that his is a genuine, well-intentioned vision for a negotiated deal to secure and benefit Israel and help the Palestinians. Not a smokescreen for an indefensible act of prime ministerial recklessness.