Netanyahu Tackles Multiple Annexation Hurdles

As the self-imposed July 1 deadline approaches, which was chosen by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the date to reveal the contours of his infamous annexation plan for the West Bank, it has become quite clear that the Israeli government’s plans have generated significant apprehension, criticism, and opposition in Israel and beyond.

Although Netanyahu—the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history—has insisted for weeks that he intends to annex or extend Israeli law over 30 percent of West Bank territory (based on his interpretation of the US administration’s green light extended through President Donald Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan), the implementation process is proving significantly more complicated than anticipated. Many questions have arisen with regards to the specific areas to be annexed, total land mass involved, particular geographic boundaries included, security and strategic implications, regional and international repercussions, impact on the future prospects for peace with Palestinians, and relations with Arab countries, just to mention a few.

Local, Regional, and International Annexation Complications

As expected, the first pushback complicating Netanyahu’s annexation scheme came from the party most directly affected, i.e., the Palestinians. In a televised speech on May 20, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced the decision taken the night before by the Palestinian leadership meeting in Ramallah that “The Palestine Liberation Organization and the State of Palestine are today no longer bound by all agreements and understandings with the American and Israeli governments, and by any of the commitments derived from those understandings and agreements, including those relating to security.” As evidence of its termination of long-term cooperation with Israel, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah announced that it will no longer accept routine tax refunds from the Netanyahu government that the latter collects on behalf of the Palestinians, and that it will cease its security cooperation with the Israeli army and security agencies.

Aside from the routine opposition to annexation by marginalized left-wing groups with limited political impact, a second complication emerged from a surprising source: the extreme nationalist right. The Jewish settlers in the West Bank doubted the sincerity of the Trump offer for two main reasons. First, they understood the US document as including the possibility of a truncated Palestinian entity in the territories now held by Israel, which they view as a mortal danger to the security of Israel in the future. Second, settler leaders insisted that the Trump plan would actually isolate scores of settlements and make the ultimate annexation of all settlements in the West Bank—which the settlers’ movement advocates—virtually impossible. Settler leader and head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council David Elhayani accused Trump and special advisor Jared Kushner of having “proven in their plan that they are not friends of the State of Israel.”

Although Netanyahu’s coalition partners in the unity government are bound by the agreement to endorse annexation, some members of the precarious Blue and White Party showed faint signs of trepidation.

Although Netanyahu’s coalition partners in the unity government are bound by the agreement to endorse annexation, some members of the precarious Blue and White Party showed faint signs of trepidation about the prime minister’s intentions and his nonchalance in terms of considering regional and international security implications. Netanyahu, according to internal Likud Party documents, wasted no time to rally his immediate power base and his coalition partners by claiming that “Applying Israeli law to already existing Jewish communities in Israel’s ancestral homeland will lead to a realistic regional peace based upon facts on the ground.” These words might sound outlandish outside Israel, but they still resonate for certain constituencies in Israeli Jewish society. Israeli religious right sources mentioned that Netanyahu had to resort to threatening his co-prime minister, current Defense Minister Benny Gantz, to toe the line on annexation or face a fourth round of elections.

Another complication emerged from security experts within and outside Israel who expressed serious concerns about the Netanyahu scheme and its long-term damage to Israeli security. Internally, various senior defense officials warned the political leadership in Israel that their annexation plans would jeopardize both diplomatic relations with Jordan and internal security in the West Bank. According to Haaretz, “An uncoordinated move by Israel, especially an announcement about annexing the Jordan Valley, could challenge those ties … and might even undermine the peace treaty between the two countries.”

An additional complication came on June 16 from a group of prominent international human rights experts who issued a statement asking the world community to oppose the Israeli plan for annexation. The detailed statement distributed by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights declared that “The annexation of occupied territory is a serious violation of the Charter of the United Nations and the Geneva Conventions, and contrary to the fundamental rule affirmed many times by the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly that the acquisition of territory by war or force is inadmissible.” Although the Netanyahu government does not seem impressed by human rights experts and institutions defending the basic principles of international law, such statements are not a futile academic exercise and end up impacting global public opinion and policies vis-à-vis the Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestine.

Finally, one must acknowledge the broad regional and international criticism and opposition to the Israeli annexation plan. It has been denounced by the United Nations, the European Union, the League of Arab States, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, among others. Individual countries like Jordan, Palestine, and the United Arab Emirates have waged their own public relations campaigns against annexation. Jordan has been particularly visible in Washington, targeting both the executive and legislative branches with its perspective on Israeli annexation and how it would impact Jordanian national security.

[The Israeli annexation plan] has been denounced by the United Nations, the European Union, the League of Arab States, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, among others.

Reflecting broad international sentiment about the issue, UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged Israel on June 24 to back away from its plan for West Bank annexation. In his words, such a move “would undermine what I believe is necessary, which is a two-state solution in which Israelis and the Palestinians can live together in peace, respect each other, and guarantee each other’s security.”

In addition, more than one thousand lawmakers from 25 different European countries have expressed “serious concerns” about the Trump plan and its Israeli interpretation. In a rare display of unity, these European parliamentarians stated that they were “deeply worried about the precedent this would set for international relations at large” and the impact that annexation would have on the future prospects for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Signatories included lawmakers from France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Norway, Spain, and many other countries. Their statement echoed the policies of leading European officials such as EU Minister for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

With this critical mass of criticism and opposition to Israeli annexation of Palestinian territory, any normal government or a law-abiding member-state of the United Nations would be compelled, or at least shamed, to reconsider plans that are broadly deemed in violation of international law. However, at this stage of the conflict, that possibility does not seem applicable to Israel or to Benjamin Netanyahu, particularly in light of the unlimited support extended to them by the Trump Administration. Although the Middle East team at the White House seems divided and is sending mixed messages on some aspects of implementing the annexation scheme, the president and his key advisors remain committed to it. After all, this time around, the annexation proposal is made in Washington and simply implemented in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Where Do We Go from Here?

In the context of all this political commotion and mismanagement of the issue by both Israel and the United States, the chances for freezing the annexation plan are currently close to nil. Officials of the Trump Administration are meeting this week to consider a phased annexation process with a new time schedule that satisfy both parties. Most probably, Israel will be empowered by the administration either to slow down the process by postponing the Jordan Valley component of the annexation, or to limit the process to major settlement blocks in the West bank, particularly in areas within close proximity to Jerusalem. Either way, Netanyahu will emerge victorious from this battle with “annexation-minus” under his political belt.