The week Israel says yes to annexing the West Bank, consequences be damned

The Deal of the Century will give Israel a green light to annex parts of the West Bank, and no Israeli leader can allow himself to be seen as less pro-Israel than the White House

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz speaks to reporters near the West Bank settlement on Migdal Oz, after yeshiva student Dvir Yehuda was killed in a terror attack, on August 8, 2019. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz speaks to reporters near the West Bank settlement on Migdal Oz, after yeshiva student Dvir Yehuda was killed in a terror attack, on August 8, 2019. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

The timing of the expected unveiling of US President Donald Trump’s so-called Deal of the Century is clearly political. To release a proposal that has been three years in the making little more than a month before Knesset elections, when it is obvious that no one in Ramallah will seriously consider it, cannot be seen as a sincere attempt to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

So who is it helping?

It could be that Trump wants to divert global attention from his impeachment woes. If so, that is a maneuver likely to fail; a peace plan that is dead on arrival cannot be expected to overshadow the drama in Washington.

Alternatively, it has been argued that the president and his team are rushing the publication of their peace plan, which is expected to be unveiled Tuesday, in a bid to help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election chances.

That’s not implausible: Trump, who has no better friend on the world stage than the Israeli leader, may reason that he needs Netanyahu to stay in office, so that he can offer vocal support for the incumbent ahead of the November 3 elections in the US. After all, Netanyahu is a popular figure in America — not only among part of the Jewish community but also, more importantly, among millions of evangelicals.

On the other hand, if the whole point of the exercise is to help Netanyahu, why was his chief political rival, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, invited to an unprecedented separate meeting with Trump? For a political novice with very limited diplomatic experience, an Oval Office photo that has the potential to neutralize Netanyahu’s “In another league” campaign slogan is electoral gold. Still, Gantz’s is a private meeting; Netanyahu’s Tuesday session with the president will be the high-profile event.

‘Too good’ for some

Ultimately, however, much more important than what led the administration to release the plan now is what it will mean in terms of concrete changes on the ground.

The proposed deal is being widely described as the most favorable plan for Israel ever presented by a US administration. But it may be “too good” for some, as a centerpiece of the deal appears to be a green light for an Israeli annexation of not only the entire Jordan Valley but all settlements across the West Bank.

While the idea of an independent Palestinian state may be anathema to many Israeli voters, they don’t necessarily want their government to unilaterally apply sovereignty over large parts of the West Bank either. In fact, according to recent polls, only one third of the Israeli public is in favor of annexing the Jordan Valley, while a third oppose such a move (the remaining respondents had no opinion).

The terms of the Trump deal have yet to be published, but several leaks — including from Israeli sources familiar with its outline — leave little doubt that endorsing an Israeli annexation of the settlements will be part of the package. The deal may provide for that option only after the Palestinians formally spurn the terms, the leaks suggest, or on the condition that Israeli agrees to other terms stipulated by the proposal.

But at this stage it is already clear that annexation is no longer an unrealistic right-wing fantasy, but has arrived in the Israeli political mainstream and could actually start to unfold in the coming weeks, possible even before the March 2 election. After all, if the “Deal of the Century” supports annexation, no Israeli party that wants to win the election can oppose it; no aspiring prime minister can be less pro-Israel than the American president.

At the beginning of his political career, Gantz was hesitant to explain in detail his views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it should be solved. The few statements he made on the matter certainly didn’t create the impression that he was a fiery proponent of a unilateral annexation of the Jordan Valley and other settlements.

But the imminent publication of Trump’s peace plan has left him little choice but to embrace the idea of annexation, at least in principle; just imagine Netanyahu’s incessant attacks on Gantz if he were to publicly oppose the most pro-Israel peace plan in history.

Announcing his trip to meet Trump on Saturday night, Gantz was careful not to offer a full preemptive endorsement of Trump deal’s, spoke of its potential to cause argument within Israel, and said he would work to turn it into the basis for an agreed deal with the Palestinians and the Arab world. But he also made plain that he considered it be a step forward, speaking of the plan as “significant milestone” on the road to the resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Condemnation and worse

The fact that the US would recognize Israel’s annexation of large parts of the West Bank as legitimate will not end the Palestinians’ claims to it, nor the world’s overwhelming support of these claims.

On the diplomatic front, the consequences of an Israeli annexation would be far-reaching and mostly negative. Many in the international community would doubtless consider an Israeli annexation as the death of their cherished two-state solution. Much of the world would hail down condemnation and denouncement, and probably even more than that.

The European Union, for instance, might consider sanctioning Israel, similar to sanctions enacted against Russia after its annexation of Crimea.

The United Nations Human Rights Council would no longer hesitate to release its currently-shelved “blacklist” of Israeli companies that do business in the settlements.

The International Criminal Court could feel emboldened to prosecute Israelis for the “war crime” of building settlements in occupied territory.

Jordan and Egypt could consider downgrading their diplomatic ties with Jerusalem, or cancel their peace agreements altogether.

The much-hailed rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf states would return into a deep freeze.

Israelis in favor of a “Greater Israel” that includes the West Bank will counter-argue that what really counts is not the international community, but its most important member: the United States. It would, of course, be a major accomplishment to get the world’s only remaining superpower to recognize your claims to the West Bank.

But it may very well be a fleeting victory, as former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro stressed on Sunday. “I think Israeli citizens should take into account that in less than a year there could be a new, Democratic administration — if not in a year than in five years,” he said in an interview. “Trump won’t be president forever. It is important to know that any Democratic candidate will oppose this plan and that no Democratic president will be bound by it,” Shapiro said.

The fact that the Trump administration so vehemently opposed United Nations Security Council resolution 2334, which condemned the Israel’s settlement enterprise, shows how quickly the pendulum can swing from one extreme to the other. It can also swing back.

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