Annexation would create an explosion of resentment among the Palestinian population, leading to revenge attacks on Israel and possibly even war.
Will there be another Israeli-Palestinian war on Tuesday? Probably not. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could well be sowing the seeds of another war if on Tuesday he carries out his election promise to start the process of annexing parts of the West Bank, home to 2.7 million Palestinians squeezed into urban enclaves, all calling the area their rightful home.
After three deadlocked elections and talks that dragged on for 500 days, Netanyahu finally formed a coalition government in May this year with his former rival, Benny Gantz. Part of the coalition agreement was that from 1 July 2020, steps will be initiated to formally annex the 132 illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Arab/Israeli war. This explosive move would only be taken with the support of President Donald Trump, described by Netanyahu as “the greatest friend” that Israel has ever had in the White House.
If annexation of any territory goes ahead, no matter how small, it will flagrantly breach international law and countless UN resolutions. Annexation would also create an explosion of resentment among the Palestinian population, leading to revenge attacks on Israel and possibly even war.
Frequently called “the world’s most intractable and divisive conflict”, although Kashmir might contest that title, the idea of a “two-state solution”, two sovereign states for two peoples who inhabit the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordon river, whether they like it or not, has been the only solution in town. Seen from the point of view of the Palestinians, however, there has been a creeping and accelerating Israeli annexation of their territory, underway since the war of 1967.
Politics in both Israel and America has played a huge part in the gradual takeover of Palestinian territory by the Israelis. The split in Israel between the ultra-orthodox right wing parties, who play a disproportionate role in keeping Netanyahu in office, and the more moderate centrist parties who would prefer to live in peace with the Palestinians, has become almost permanent and irresolvable. The Israeli right-wing fanatics see the whole of Palestine as biblically theirs by right, and argue that all Palestinians should be subjugated into a Jewish State. The 1993 Oslo Peace Accord is dead, and the truth is that no one has a remotely workable strategy for achieving an alternative unitary state with equal rights for all.
Benjamin Netanyahu is in a race for time, before his sponsor and friend in the White House is likely to be voted out of office in November. He knows that Joe Biden, Trump’s rival, opposes annexation and if elected will reverse US policy. Donald Trump is extremely popular in Israel, particularly after recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and relocating America’s embassy there the following year. This move was long requested by both conservative Israeli-Americans and also the evangelical “End Time” Christians, who are ardent Trump supporters and who believe that Jesus Christ will appear on earth once Jewish people control the city. It was also hugely popular with the Republican Jewish Coalition, a group backed by mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who in 2016 gave the Trump campaign $30 million, followed by a $124 million donation to the Republican Party for the 2018 mid-term elections. In America, money buys outrageous influence.
President Trump has already shown his willingness to help Netanyahu in recognising land annexed by Israel. In March 2019, through a presidential proclamation, the United States recognised the Golan Heights as part of Israel, even though seen by the rest of the world as Syrian territory under Israeli military occupation. In one of the most extraordinary statements by any US President, he admitted that this spontaneous gift was designed to help Netanyahu in the forthcoming Israeli elections. Speaking in Las Vegas on 6 April last year at the Republican Jewish Coalition, Trump harked back to the March meeting with the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and his own Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner. “I said, ‘Fellas, do me a favour. Give me a little history, quick. Want to go fast. I got a lot of things I’m working on: China, North Korea. Give me a quickie.” After the bite-size history lesson, Trump then continued: “How do you like the idea of me recognising exactly what we’re discussing?” Trump claimed that Friedman, an arch supporter of Israel, was shocked and asked if he would actually do it. “I went—Bing!—it was done. We make fast decisions. And we make good decisions.” Typically, Trump is unaware of the hypocrisy in recognising annexation of land by Israel and condemning the same of Russia when it annexed the Crimea in 2014. A government’s moral authority disappears with hypocrisy.
So now we know how American foreign policy is formulated today, from the mouth of the President himself. This will not surprise you if you’ve read John Bolton’s new book, “The Room Where it Happened”, which paints the picture of a reckless and confused President, addicted to chaos, whose waking hours are dedicated solely to being re-elected for a second term.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation plans were given a rocket-boost in January this year when President Trump announced in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House his “deal of the century”. The two backslappingly beamed at each other as the guests from the entourages of the two leaders clapped and whooped. Trump claimed he had found a new way to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel would get the security it needed and the Palestinians would get the state they craved. So far so good. Except that the Trump plan gave Netanyahu all he wanted, and offered the Palestinians virtually nothing; a sort of state that will be truncated, without proper sovereignty, surrounded by Israel’s territory and threaded between Jewish settlements. It’s not surprising the Palestinians rejected the ridiculous “deal of the century” out of hand.
The curious thing about the “deal of the century” is that it isn’t a deal at all, at least not between the two protagonists, Israel and the Palestinians. In reality, it’s a deal between the US and Israel, whose two positions are now aligned. Perhaps that was the reason why no Palestinian was present at the ceremony, unlike former “deals” such as the Oslo Accord. Then, a beaming Bill Clinton presided over a ceremony on the White House lawn attended by Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s greatest war leader, and Yasser Arafat, the human embodiment of Palestinian hopes for freedom. The two bitter enemies even shook hands!
Throughout all the years of mediation in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the top US priorities have always been Israel’s wishes, constraints and most of all its security. But successive US Presidents accepted that peace required a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel, even if they were not prepared to allow it equal sovereignty. Israel argues that the Palestinians turned down a series of good offers. The Palestinian negotiators say they made huge concessions, not least in accepting Israel’s existence in occupying around a whopping 78% of their historic homeland. It’s odd that the self-confessed “world’s greatest dealmaker”, Donald Trump, seems to have forgotten that a “deal” requires agreement on both sides.
Outside of Israel, the “deal of the century” has few, if any supporters. Jordan’s King Abdullah has warned that the annexation plan would threaten regional stability, adding that it would lead to massive conflict. The EU has reminded Israel that the move would be contrary to international law and has threatened sanctions. On Wednesday, over 1,000 parliamentarians across Europe signed a letter strongly opposing the annexation plans. There has even been a chorus of disapproval from respected former Israeli military, intelligence and diplomatic officials in denouncing any unilateral annexation as a grave risk to Israel’s security. Their views have been supported by hundreds of Israelis, mostly the young, who protested in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square last week. Arab leaders have warned that annexation would threaten Israel’s progress in forging ties with their countries, in part over their common adversary in Tehran, progress which Netanyahu has brandished as proof of his statesmanship.
Along with a team of 50 experts appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Palestinian leadership insists that Netanyahu’s plan would formalise a system of “apartheid” in the West Bank, similar to that existing in South Africa years ago: two peoples ruled by one state with unequal rights. They view Israel’s occupation “a source of profound human rights violations against the Palestinian people which would only intensify after annexation”. Even Israeli opposition figures from Jewish majority parties view the plan as a nightmare, tarnishing Israel’s global image.
Despite all the opposition to his plans, Prime Minister Netanyahu says he is determined to go ahead with the annexation, provided he retains the support of the White House. There are, however, some last minute signs that external pressure might persuade him to postpone the move, using the cover of the coronavirus. He might even make do with an interim symbolic declaration of sovereignty over settlements around Jerusalem. This would change little on the ground, but might be digestible by Israel’s Arab neighbours, allowing Benjamin Netanyahu, the son of a history professor, a place in Israeli history for himself.
If he does go ahead on Tuesday, however, expect fireworks!
John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.