Assessing Options for a Palestinian Response to Israeli Annexation

After 18 months of false starts and three attempts, Israeli elections have finally yielded a governing coalition that has brought together its largest parties, along with mostly right-wing factions, under the leadership of the incumbent prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The coalition agreement between him and Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz makes clear that the further annexation of occupied Palestinian territory is a priority agenda item. Indeed, Israeli politicians see a historic window of opportunity to do so, one that might not be open past the American election in November. With annexation legislation coming as early as July, Palestinians will have to contend with the latest massive unilateral move during a Trump-Netanyahu era that has been characterized by fulfillment of right-wing fantasies. Below is an assessment of some of the Palestinians’ options and the prospects of each.

Threats to Take Action

There is a wide range of decisions by the Palestinians that fall under the category of threatening to take action. Some of these include ending agreements with Israel, going to the International Criminal Court, and joining additional international organizations. All three are considered below.

1. End Agreements. On May 19, PLO Chairman and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced a series of measures in response to the formation of the new Israeli government, including ending all agreements with Israel and the United States. It is not clear what this means, though the statement from Abbas said that the decision would be effective “as of today.” Days later, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh was conducting meetings to figure out how to implement it. The declaration by Abbas also called for an end to security collaboration with the Israeli occupation, a central component of the Israel/PA relationship that is the cornerstone of the Oslo process of the 1990s. This collaboration is likely the most important element of those agreements to Israeli national security and one in which American intelligence and security services are heavily engaged. It is noteworthy that Palestinian Authority officials have talked about such a decision for some time now and have had plenty of time to discuss its implementation. In fact, Abbas and various official Palestinian entities have declared an end to agreements or to security collaboration with Israel on numerous occasions: March 2015, September 2015, February 2017, July 2017, January 2018, May 2018, August 2018, October 2018, July 2019, and February 2020. Of course, a threat is only as effective as it is credible; unfortunately for Palestinians, years of crying wolf by their leadership have created a credibility vacuum.

There will also be a sizeable number of opponents [in the Knesset] who will make arguments against annexation, including that it might destabilize security and jeopardize Israeli relations with Jordan and others.

Might this time be different? So far, it does not seem to be. The most interesting part of Abbas’s declaration is the timing. Why do this now instead of in response to the Israeli decision to annex, which is unlikely to happen before July? A plausible reason might be that Abbas believes he might be able to affect the internal debate inside Israel about this decision. While the annexation legislation seems to have enough support to pass in the Knesset, based on statements of support by a majority of members, there will also be a sizeable number of opponents who will make arguments against annexation, including that it might destabilize security and jeopardize Israeli relations with Jordan and others. By making the costs of such a decision more apparent at the forefront, Abbas might be thinking he could provide leverage to those opponents to try to stave off passage of the legislation. Any potential impact on the legislation will be a function of Abbas’s ability to actually follow through with the commitment; however, there is no evidence from past behavior to suggest this is likely.

2. Go to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Included in Abbas’s declaration was a threat to take Israel to the International Criminal Court. Although earlier this year an ICC decision held that under its jurisdiction it could consider cases from Palestine, prior to this milestone the Palestinians’ road to the ICC was a long one. First they had to gain standing as a state at the United Nations, which occurred in 2012 (as a non-member state), but it took until 2015 for the PLO to finally take the decision to adopt the Rome Statute (retroactive to summer 2014) and accept ICC jurisdiction. Several years later, in late 2019, the prosecutor announced she had found grounds for opening a war crimes investigation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza and requested a determination about jurisdiction. That determination was finally made in the affirmative in May 2020.

As the possibility of holding Israel to account at the ICC becomes more likely, the United States has started to take steps to dissuade the ICC from doing so, including making threats against the world body directly. In mid-May, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement denouncing the attempt to judge Israeli war crimes at the ICC, saying, “If the ICC continues down its current course, we will exact consequences.”

For the PA to pursue this course will lead to further conflict with the United States; but given where the relationship is now and what is at stake, there is little to salvage. How far such an initiative can go is not clear; even if the Palestinians push in this direction, the court itself might bend under pressure from Washington. The United States has always had a cold relationship with the ICC and it has never been a party to the Rome Statute. Given the role the United States plays in the world and the leverage it could apply, tactics that involve approaching these international organizations and institutions can be complicated.

3. Join Additional International Organizations. Another of the commitments in Abbas’s recent declaration was for Palestine to join additional international organizations. The State of Palestine became a non-member state in the United Nations and subsequently a member of UNESCO. It also acceded to a number of treaties and international agreements. Several key organizations remain open as options for joining as a full member including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), World Health Organization (WHO), World Food Programme (WFP), World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and World Trade Organization (WTO). Because of American legislation that has been on the books for years, the United States is obligated to defund (and thus effectively end its relationship with) any international organization that accepts the State of Palestine as a member. Such an outcome with organizations like the IAEA, WIPO, WHO, and WTO would have profoundly negative consequences for American global national security and economic interests. The Palestinians could pursue this route, but aside from further rankling Washington and consequently irritating the international organizations because they would then lose significant funding, it is hard to see what Palestinians could gain from deploying such tactics.

Waiting for Joe

As the United States approaches another election this November, the Palestinians could choose to respond to annexation by essentially waiting for the outcome of that contest before taking any further steps. While it is likely that there will have to be some sort of response since an Israeli step of this magnitude could not go unanswered, Palestinian decision makers may calculate that with November around the corner, they should factor in the possibility that Washington might have new leadership under the apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden. They could consider that they might be able to gain some favor with a Biden administration if they do not respond to annexation in a way that would make things harder for a potential Biden presidency.

Palestinian decision makers may calculate that with November around the corner, they should factor in the possibility that Washington might have new leadership under the apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

For decades the Palestinian leadership has had a Washington-centric vision and always aimed to cultivate good relations with the White House. Even given all we knew about President Trump when he came into office, Abbas still tried to appeal to him, telling him in May of 2017, “Mr. President, with you we have hope.” Much has deteriorated since then, of course, but the episode emphasizes the approach the Palestinian leadership would likely take with a new administration.

Waiting for Joe Biden, however, might well turn out to be like waiting for Godot. If Biden manages to win, he would be coming into the White House in January 2021 to lead a nation that will likely be continuing to experience a massive economic crisis and an unprecedented public health emergency. A Biden administration’s first priority would be to face inward and not out toward the world. When the Biden team does eventually turn to world affairs, it would prioritize resetting relationships with long-time allies that have been jolted by four years of Trumpism. Palestine will not be anywhere near the top of the agenda.

Compounding this is the fact that unlike the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, where there have been important changes in political attitudes toward Israel, Biden is very much a representative of the traditional wing where politicians are hesitant to deal with any Israel-related controversy and/or to make it a political issue.

The Jerusalem Model: Isolate the United States

A decision to annex parts of the West Bank would be a major unilateral step on the part of Israel, one that would have been hard to imagine 10 or 20 years ago and could not have come about without far-right governments in Washington and Tel Aviv. Similarly, the American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the show around it that both governments coordinated falls into the same category. The Palestinian response to annexation could follow a similar model to the response to the Jerusalem announcement. The Palestinians effectively worked with international partners in the Arab world and at the United Nations to demonstrate global opposition to the American decision. Votes in the Arab League as well as the United Nations General Assembly demonstrated the isolation of the United States and Israel on this issue.

The question would be, then what? There might be a UN resolution for every dunum of Palestinian land expropriated by Israel, but that has never stopped Israeli colonization even when the entire world, minus the United States, would condemn it.

Shifting the Goal and Strategy, Not Just the Tactics

The Palestinians could try some combination of the above concurrently; that may well be the course of action they choose. The fundamental problem remains, however, that these are all tactics devoid of strategy. The reason is that strategy is based on achieving a goal, but the stated goal of an independent and viable Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines has long since died.

Annexation affords the Palestinians an opportunity to engage in a fundamental shift, not just of tactics but of strategy and vision as well.

Annexation affords the Palestinians an opportunity to engage in a fundamental shift, not just of tactics but of strategy and vision as well. Such a unilateral Israeli step would demonstrate to the world conclusively that the fanciful idea of partition is no longer possible—but the Palestinian leadership would have to play a leading role in making that case. If not, the international community will choose the path of least resistance and keep the fantasy of partition alive for an ever-smaller Palestinian rump-state.

An Israeli annexation decision would serve as a chance for the Palestinians to shift the narrative from one about nationalism to one about equality; this would be far more likely to generate sympathy in the West, where policy change must happen for progress to be possible. Of course, this path would not be easy and would be fraught with questions about how this profound shift would unfold and how long it would take to realize. Every tactic aimed toward achieving a nonexistent goal means more Palestinian time and effort wasted as Israeli colonization proceeds. It would take bold Palestinian leadership to make this shift instead of recycling old statements and promises.