A leading Israeli think tank held a war game this week simulating a decision by Israel to annex parts of the West Bank, predicted that the annexation move would be suspended amid a series of escalating repercussions, and summed it up by warning of the potentially dramatic negative security and diplomatic ramifications of such a move.
In a summary of the simulation, the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to apply sovereignty over West Bank lands designated for Israel under US President Donald Trump’s peace proposal has “returned the Palestinian problem to center stage,” after the Jewish state was able to push the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the sidelines of international and regional focus over the past decade while working to counter Iran.
It predicated a wave of violence and the freezing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, and warned that Israeli decision-making on the issue is motivated by short-term tactical thinking rather than strategy. Unilateral annexation, it warns in summary, could prompt “dramatic steps that change the rules of the game.”
In its simulation, as Israel begins moving ahead with annexation, the INSS said, “Almost immediately, a series of escalating events began in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere and beyond. During the game, the increased loss of control over these events spurred the various relevant actors to accede to a plan by the Quartet regarding suspension of both the annexation and establishment of the Palestinian state, and a return to the negotiating table with President Trump’s plan one of the terms of reference for those negotiations, along with the Arab Peace Initiative.”
Trump’s peace plan, which has been rejected by the Palestinian Authority, envisions all Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley — which account for some 30 percent of the West Bank — being incorporated into Israel, with the rest set aside for a provisional Palestinian state. As part of his Likud party’s coalition deal with Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, Netanyahu was set to advance unilateral annexation of that 30% from July 1, though he said on that date that talks with the US administration on the matter were ongoing.
The INSS simulation featured the INSS director Amos Yadlin — a former head of IDF Military Intelligence and Labor candidate for defense minister — in the role of Netanyahu, and former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkott representing the IDF’s top echelon.
It predicates events playing out as follows, beginning with Netanyahu declaring in a July 28 press conference that in agreement with Blue and White, the government will approve extending Israeli sovereignty to a number of settlement blocs near Jerusalem, covering some 4 percent of the West Bank.
In response to the simulated announcement, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declares an independent Palestinian state within the pre-1967 lines, calling for other countries to swiftly recognize it. Israeli intelligence, meanwhile, warns of Palestinian unrest directed toward the PA and the ceding of urban areas in the West Bank to armed groups.
On July 30, there are a series of worrying events, beginning with the takeover by Palestinian youths of a hilltop between the Psagot and Kochav Yaakov settlements. The PA announces Palestinian security forces will be dispatched to the area to prevent the Israeli military from clearing the outpost set up on the hilltop, as part of a series of moves to “liberate” Area C, the roughly 60 percent of the West Bank where Israel maintains security and diplomatic control.
Later that day, a car carrying foreign journalists heading to report on the hilltop developments attempts to break through the Hizme checkpoint in the northern West Bank after being stopped there. Believing this to be a car-ramming attack, Israel Defense Forces troops open fire, wounding a photographer in the vehicle.
Also on that day, Palestinian terrorists in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip fire five rockets toward Israeli territory; an Israeli man and two of his children are killed by gunfire while driving near the Beit El settlement; and hundreds of Palestinians in Jericho block the highway running through the Jordan Valley.
Three days later, on August 2, an Israeli couple hiking near the Mevo Dotan outpost goes missing. Also that day, the Jordanian Air Force requests permission for King Abdullah II to fly to Ramallah to meet with Abbas. Israel approves the flight on the condition that Abdullah not attend a ceremony marking the establishment of a Palestinian state, but after arriving in Ramallah the king leads a march alongside Abbas and the secretary-general of the Arab League toward Jerusalem.
To prevent events from further spiraling out of control, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov calls on Israel and the Palestinians to attend an emergency meeting of the Middle East Quartet in Moscow.
The next day, the Israeli government formally approves annexing the settlement blocs, sparking rioting and further violence in Gaza, the West Bank and on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City.
With international attention on the growing violence, Iran announces it will begin enriching uranium to 20% and pull out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Additionally, three rockets are fired at Israel from southern Lebanon, Turkey encourages violence on the Temple Mount and violent demonstrations break out in Amman calling for Abdullah to abrogate Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel. Abdullah subsequently freezes diplomatic ties and demands Israel evacuate its embassy in Amman.
On August 4 at the Quartet meeting, Israel and the PA are called on to immediately return to the negotiating table, with the former urged to suspend annexation and the latter to walk back its declaration of independence. Both sides agree to the Quartet’s conditions for launching negotiations.
In explaining the Israeli decision to accept the Quartet’s proposal for peace talks, the summary of the simulation said the move was motivated by concerns over Iran’s exploitation of the international focus on annexation to further breach its commitments under the 2015 deal with world powers curbing its nuclear program.
“This development, along with the growing escalation in the Palestinian arena, spurred Israel to join the Quartet’s path for an arrangement with the Palestinians in order to retrain the focus on the Iranian issue,” it said.
One of the conclusions of the simulation was “tactical events are what determine Israeli strategy,” with INSS noting Israeli leaders’ comments that Israel must seize the opportunity of a Trump White House to advance annexation. It also warned that the decision-making process in Israel “reflects short-term thinking” that it said doesn’t fully consider the potential direct and indirect ramifications “of dramatic steps that change the rules of the game.”
“The war game found a way out of the trap, but it is questionable whether in reality, this exit will be accessible or practical,” the think tank concluded.