Martin Indyk | Distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and United States ambassador to Israel
In the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s proclamation that the United States recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to assert a new principle: “If it was conquered in a war of self defense, it’s ours.”
Was Netanyahu previewing the argument for Trump’s recognition of Israel’s annexation of West Bank territory? Almost certainly, because that will be the priority of his next government should he win reelection. Israeli right-wing leaders have long argued that Trump’s presidency is the perfect moment to advance their annexationist agenda for the West Bank. Netanyahu in the past has resisted this move, understanding that the United States would oppose it. But by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, Trump has given them all a green light.
Did he intend that? It hardly matters. His Golan decision was done with complete disregard for a fundamental principle that governs relations between states—the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force. So when it comes to recognizing Israel’s annexation of West Bank territory it’s but a small step from there. Note that no Trump spokesman has contradicted Netanyahu’s might-makes-right assertion. The U.S. president is not committed to a two-state solution, he allows for no Palestinian aspirations in Jerusalem, and he judges these issues not in terms of the negative impact they would have on his efforts to achieve “the deal of the century,” but rather for their political effect.
Facing his own reelection, he will do anything to secure his Evangelical base. Those voters firmly believe that the West Bank was given to the Jews by God, citing the Bible for their justification. Thus if a right-wing and religious coalition government in Israel decides to annex the parts of the West Bank that Israel controls, the Evangelicals will surely press Trump to recognize it, just as he did the Golan. It’s unlikely he will give it a second thought, especially if the Palestinians have by then rejected his peace plan. One can even imagine a pugnacious Trump threatening them: “If you don’t accept my offer of autonomy and economic peace, then I will recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the 60 percent of the West Bank that is still under Israeli control.” And when they don’t, Trump will.
Diana B. Greenwald | Assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York
It is no secret that extending Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements is a priority for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and others on the Israeli right. Further, it seems likely that annexationists will form part of the next government. While annexation proposals differ, Education Minister Naftali Bennett has described the idea succinctly as “the maximum amount of land with the minimum amount of Palestinians.”
President Donald Trump cares more for publicity stunts than Israeli or Palestinian security. Even if his administration releases its notional peace plan, the president will continue deferring to territorial maximalists, including those in his own administration and the Israeli government. This could result in another dramatic pronouncement that some subset of settlements are “off the table,” especially since Trump is likely frustrated that his surrender-or-starve tactics have not worked with the Palestinians. Otherwise, the president may try to ride it out, hoping to reach November 2020 with the occupation safely entrenched and not collapsing under its own weight, while he is politically insulated from its consequences.
David Makovsky | Ziegler distinguished fellow, director of the Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, former senior adviser for peace negotiations in the Office of the Secretary of State (2013–2014)
The Trump administration has spent two and a half years crafting its Middle East peace plan. Regardless of the prospect of the proposal’s success, it seems unlikely that President Donald Trump will disrupt the possibility that his own plan will lead to negotiations by recognizing any annexation of the West Bank. However, things may change if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rejects the plan, which is considered likely. In that case would a reelected Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, pushed by his right-wing coalition (and possibly at the mercy of these very forces for his political survival due to a preliminary indictment against Netanyahu), urge Trump to support annexation of settlements? It would be one thing if annexations were very limited in scope as part of a wider negotiated deal as was always understood to be consistent with a two-state solution. However, it would be another if they were designed to upend the viability of the two-state idea. While a conversation in the United States about annexation is not likely now, it could emerge in the wake of a failed presentation of the peace plan.
Sarah Yerkes | Fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program
The first question is whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, if he is reelected on April 9, will formally annex parts of the occupied West Bank. If he does so by annexing major settlement blocs or the 60 percent of the territory that Israel controls today, there is a high likelihood that the Trump administration would recognize that annexation very quickly. While there was significant uproar from the international community over the U.S. recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights recently, the fact that none of that noise had any real impact on the United States sent a signal to the administration that recognizing Israeli annexation of the West Bank would be low-risk.
But the backlash against Israeli annexation of the West Bank would not only kill any chance of reaching a peace deal that the Trump administration has made a top policy priority, it would also invite severe blowback from key regional allies such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. However, the person who is likely to sway Trump to ignore such threats is the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who has long promoted pro-settlement policies with little regard for their impact on U.S. interests.