Will Israel’s New Government Annex the West Bank?

Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu meeting with settlement leaders after President Trump’s Golan Heights Proclamation.

Now that another Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to be formed, the question of how it will handle the issue of annexation of part or all of the occupied West Bank comes to the fore. With growing domestic support for a move in this direction and especially with the most supportive White House ever, Israeli leaders might look through the prism of their learned history and decide that this is a rare opportunity to lay claim to even more Palestinian land.

Domestic Israeli Politics

After the latest Israeli elections, a much clearer picture of the next government that will lead the Israeli state has emerged—and it is a very familiar one. A right-wing religious nationalist coalition led by the Likud’s Netanyahu, now beginning his fifth term, is in the process of consolidating about 65 out of the 120 seats in the Israeli Knesset.

The election campaign season was notable for three different reasons. First, it was colored by abject and transparent anti-Palestinian racism across most of the Israeli political spectrum. Second, it was characterized by a striking absence of the question of peace with the Palestinians as a campaign issue. Third, and due to remarks made by Netanyahu in the closing days of the campaign, there was open discussion of the prospect of Israeli annexation of some or all of the occupied West Bank.

Despite relatively frequent elections that might give the impression of an unstable political system, Israeli politics have actually exhibited a very stable and continuous trend over the last two decades, and in particular, of a steady shift toward the right.

Despite relatively frequent elections that might give the impression of an unstable political system, Israeli politics have actually exhibited a very stable and continuous trend over the last two decades, and in particular, of a steady shift toward the right. While there remain issues that are divisive enough to bring down right-wing religious nationalist coalitions––the question of military conscription for the ultra-orthodox, for instance––time and again it is only the right that is able to cobble together governing coalitions in the aftermath of an election. This is because the main right-wing party, the Likud, remains strong and vibrant and able to garner nearly a quarter of the electorate. The anti-Likud vote, often going to different parties over the years, picks up another 25 percent. The remainder of the electorate is split between several smaller parties, the majority of which are right-wing parties that can rely on steady constituencies to deliver votes in each election. Israeli settlers play an outsized role here; not only do they consistently vote for right-wing parties, but their population is growing faster and their turnout is higher than that of other groups. In this election, three right-wing parties finished just below the qualifying 3.25 percent threshold, likely because some of their voters defected to the Likud at the last moment to ensure a right-wing party was the largest. The votes they received, however, show that the election could have easily yielded a 70-75-seat coalition for the right had the effort been more streamlined and organized. The opposition bloc, however, made most use of every vote and still came up short in a significant way.

Frequent elections that yield the same results reinforce a sense of dominance; they have allowed the right to shape the political field for years. As the right has come to shape the mainstream, it has forced opposition parties to adjust by moving further to the right themselves. The result is an entire electorate that moves rightward over time.

As the right has come to shape the mainstream, it has forced opposition parties to adjust by moving further to the right themselves. The result is an entire electorate that moves rightward over time.

Recent polling by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz offers some insight into the views of voters of different parties when it comes to the question of annexing part or all of the West Bank. Some 46 percent of voters backing the Labor Party—often viewed as the traditional Zionist left—support annexing Area C, which makes up about 60 percent of the West Bank. On the whole, 42 percent of respondents support some form of annexation. Twenty-five percent of respondents backing the largest opposition party, led by former Israeli military Chief of Staff Benjamin Gantz, support annexing Area C. Interestingly, that is more than double the number of Likud supporters (12 percent) who would back the move (39 percent would support some form of annexation).

The Likud Party, the largest in the coalition government that will lead Israel once again, has always been opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. Its party platform “flatly rejects” the idea and is committed to supporting and expanding Israeli settlements in what it refers to as Judea and Samaria. The Likud Party has supported the status quo. It opposes Palestinian statehood, and it also opposes incorporating Palestinians under Israeli law while simultaneously supporting settlement expansion. The party has decided it is best to postpone a decision on annexation as long as it can.

But that might be changing. With Netanyahu now publicly supporting the idea and with many Likud members backing it as well, the idea of annexing Area C becomes increasingly possible. In truth, Israel already controls the entire West Bank, including Area C, where Israeli civil law applies. What it has not done yet, however, is formally annex it and make an official claim to sovereignty over the territory. To the extent that this has been avoided, it has been because the consequences were unpredictable and potentially risky. Since even the pretense of a two-state outcome would be jeopardized by this move, it could easily lead to international opprobrium for Israel. The United States’ reaction, in particular, would be key. But with domestic support in Israel for such a move growing today and with international apathy toward the issue and an American green light possibly forthcoming, the annexation of Area C is now a real possibility.

With Netanyahu now publicly supporting the idea and with many Likud members backing it as well, the idea of annexing Area C becomes increasingly possible. In truth, Israel already controls the entire West Bank, including Area C, where Israeli civil law applies.

Laying the Historical and Geographical Groundwork

There are several historical antecedents that inform Israeli decision-making around annexing Area C or more of the occupied West Bank, all of which would strengthen Israel’s decision to do so. These include its territorial acquisition following the 1947 partition plan; the annexation of Jerusalem in 1967, followed by the passage of the Basic Law on Jerusalem in 1980; the annexation of the Golan Heights in 1981 (that has just been acknowledged by the Trump Administration); and the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. In each instance, Israel took hold of or laid claim to territory beyond what the international community recognized as Israeli; and in each instance, Israel’s primary ally, the United States, opposed its moves. However, over time, Israeli steadfastness led to a sense of irreversibility that ultimately changed Washington’s position.

The 1947 UN Partition plan allotted 56 percent of historic Palestine, the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, for the newly established Israeli state. The ensuing war resulted in the depopulation of nearly 800,000 Palestinians and the new state laid claim to 78 percent of the territory—significantly more than the UN had agreed to in its partition plan. The United States, which was first to recognize the Israeli state before the territorial acquisitions of the war finished, was initially opposed to Israeli expansionism; and the Truman Administration tried to press Israel into permitting refugee repatriation into the areas it acquired that belonged to the Palestinian state in the partition plan. But the Israelis refused. This additional 22 percent of Arab territory that the Israeli state had taken was essentially dropped as a contentious issue between Israel and the international community after that. But there was another 22 percent left.

With the 1967 war, Israel occupied that remaining 22 percent, along with other Arab territories, and began to lay claim to the Palestinian territories, first with the annexation of East Jerusalem as well as additional territory surrounding it in the West Bank, which it enveloped in the municipality of Jerusalem. This action was condemned by the international community. In 1980, a Basic Law related to Jerusalem was passed, underscoring the annexation. This, too, was condemned by the UN Security Council. Ultimately, however, Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem became normalized in American politics and the Trump Administration recently fulfilled a campaign promise made by every presidential candidate in recent decades when it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem became normalized in American politics and the Trump Administration recently fulfilled a campaign promise made by every presidential candidate in recent decades when it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Similarly with the Golan Heights, Israeli annexation in 1981 initially caused a disruption in US-Israel relations but Israel stood firm and Washington backed down. Over time, Israeli control over the Golan became normalized in a policy discourse dominated by Israeli security concerns. One year after recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Trump Administration recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Israel’s policy around settlements in the West Bank follows a similar pattern. From as early as 1968, the United States understood that continued settlement expansion would make Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank less likely, but Washington’s loudest objections to Israeli settlement expansion came in the context of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This was in part a product of two intertwined dynamics: the American need to show a semblance of evenhandedness in the process as well as to demonstrate the viability of the process itself. How, after all, could such a process lead to an independent, viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza while Israel was building and expanding settlements all over it? But settlement building and expansion continued, especially during the peace process period. Despite occasional US objections, Israel continued to build one house at a time, one square kilometer at a time, just as it always had.

Settlement building accelerated in the 1990s. After Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli nationalist opposed to any return of land to the Palestinians, the right-wing government of Ariel Sharon received from President George W. Bush letters outlining an American position on major settlement blocs and indicating that any border would have to ensure that these blocs would remain under Israeli control. The letters formalized a principle that had been laid out in the Clinton parameters immediately before. With these actions, the Israelis achieved the goal of making the 1949 armistice line diplomatically permeable.

With each of these events, Israel learned the lesson that even if there are objections at the outset, if it can lay claim to land, hold it, and even build on it for a period of time, eventually Washington—if not the international community—would have to adjust to the reality it created on the ground. Any visions for peaceful solutions would then have to fit these adjustments. This is in fact how the idea of a two-state solution with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza was born. Partition had long been a theme, but its parameters looked very different in 1937 (with the Peel Commission partition proposal) and in the 1947 UN partition plan. Israel’s acquisition of territory beyond the 1947 partition outline, which the world ultimately accepted, set a new framework. But just as certain visions for peace can be born, so too can they be stillborn through further changes on the ground. This seems to be what the Israelis are hoping for and given the history in this regard, they have every reason to be encouraged to do so.

A Willing Partner in Crime

Netanyahu may see a rare opportunity today to once again try to impose an international reset in the vision for an Israeli-Palestinian resolution. If the Israeli government were to move forward with annexation of Area C, this would add yet another obstacle to withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories. Trying to stop Israel from taking particular expansionist steps has often been a difficult task for many in the international community, but reversing such steps has become even harder. The Israelis might be thinking that annexing Area C would render the idea of a Palestinian state dead and buried.

Trying to stop Israel from taking particular expansionist steps has often been a difficult task for many in the international community, but reversing such steps has become even harder. The Israelis might be thinking that annexing Area C would render the idea of a Palestinian state dead and buried.

To do this, though, they will need some help, and fortunately for them, they have the most cooperative White House in the history of US-Israel relations. It has surely dawned on the Israelis that Trump is an outlier in his extreme pro-Israel positions even in the American context, which has overwhelmingly been pro-Israel historically. This is a moment that may never come again, one that has already paid off with the Jerusalem and Golan recognitions. If the Trump Administration, which has long spoken of an “ultimate deal” for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, presents a plan that makes clear Area C will remain under some form of Israeli control, the Israelis may use the opportunity to pursue annexation of Area C. Supporters of this move in Israel will argue that there is sufficient domestic support and adequate American backing and, eventually, other western nations who oppose annexation now will have to accept it—just as they have historically. How Trump’s plan is received might add an extra dimension. For example, if, as it is expected, the deal is considered dead on arrival by the Palestinian leadership, the Americans, along with the Israelis, will blame the fallout on the Palestinians, whom they will attempt to portray as rejectionists. Trump would then seek to buttress this argument with other Arab states whose support his administration has been seeking for the plan.

The Trump Administration has close to two years left in its term and this unique window of opportunity for the Israelis could be starting to close. They will realize that the time for them to strike a paradigm shifting blow is now, and the upcoming peace plan, reportedly to be made public in June, may be just the catalyst.

Yousef Munayyer is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yousef and read his previous publications click here