The agreement establishing the current Israeli coalition government has set July 1 as the target date to begin consideration of the annexation in the West Bank. As this self-imposed deadline approaches, there is still a great deal of uncertainty about how the process will unfold.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not indicated whether he plans to pursue a maximalist approach, which would involve annexation of the entire Jordan Valley and all Israeli settlements, as he promised during the election campaign. Nor has he clarified whether he might choose to annex a smaller area, perhaps focusing on the large settlement blocs adjacent to pre-1967 Israel. A third option is that Netanyahu may defer this complex decision until later.
Another great uncertainty is the position of the United States, which is a critical factor since annexation is only meaningful if it brings U.S. recognition with it. One certainty is Palestinian opposition to any form of annexation, although the ability of the Palestinians to prevent such an outcome is very limited. Whatever decision Netanyahu takes, it will have far-reaching implications. Even a limited annexation would be, potentially, a fatal blow to any two-state solution.
Netanyahu faces domestic opposition to annexation from both the right and the left. Significant parts of Israel’s settler movement and the far-right parties oppose annexation as laid out in President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” because that approach doesn’t go far enough for them and would leave many settlements as isolated enclaves inside Palestinian territory. They also oppose the Trump plan because, in theory at least, it would allow a future Palestinian state in the non-annexed parts of the West Bank.
On Netanyahu’s left, the opposition to annexation ranges from those who want to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution, others concerned about the security implications, and yet others who point to the negative consequences for Israel’s relations with the Arab states and the international community.
Netanyahu’s decisionmaking will be driven primarily by his evaluation of the impact any action will have on his political standing and legacy, and by the position adopted by the Trump administration. Under the coalition agreement, Netanyahu will remain in charge until fall 2021 when he will hand over the reins of power to Defense Minister Benny Gantz. During that time, Netanyahu will also be dealing with his criminal trial.
Netanyahu may see annexation as the lasting legacy of his long period in power, hoping to elevate himself to the same level as Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. Yet he will also need to consider the potential negative consequences of annexation, as he will not want to leave in his wake another violent round of confrontation with the Palestinians or greater international isolation for Israel. In the past Netanyahu has had a pattern of talking tough and acting cautiously. Given the conflicting pressures that he faces, he may opt for the middle ground of a limited or phased annexation.
Since 1967, Israel has controlled the West Bank and annexation was always an available option. However, Israel never seriously pursued this, knowing it made no sense in the face of certain opposition from the international community, including the United States. What has changed is the Trump administration’s break with longstanding U.S. policy. Yet the administration has conditioned its recognition of Israeli annexation on a bilateral mapping exercise, which in effect gives the U.S. a veto in the process. Trump has not weighed in on what he would be willing to accept, and his key aides have staked out different approaches.
The U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, seems most supportive of annexation. He has been active in trying to build a consensus between Netanyahu and Gantz. Jared Kusher, Trump’s son in law and the man considered the author of the proposal presented to the Israelis and Palestinians, has reportedly placed more emphasis on using the prospect of annexation to advance negotiations on the basis of his plan. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has apparently advised a slower approach due to concerns about the regional implications and a possible shift in the focus away from Iran.
Ultimately, the American position will be determined by the president himself, and he will certainly view this issue, like all others, through the lens of his reelection campaign. But it is hard to see how Trump can gain much electoral advantage at this stage. While annexation should be popular with Christian evangelicals and the right wing in the American Jewish community, most of those voters are already in his pocket. It seems unlikely that the president’s position would change any votes in the United States. In such a situation, with many other problems on his desk, he may prefer a more limited annexation that can be anchored in a consensus between Netanyahu and Gantz, or perhaps even a deferral of the entire issue.
The Palestinians’ opposition to any form of annexation has been clear, and they have not waited until July 1 to cut off all ties with Israel, including security cooperation. Yet the Palestinian reaction has had little impact on the debate in Israel or in the Trump administration. Their reaction has also illustrated the weakness of their position and the likelihood that any steps they might take will have negative ramifications for the Palestinians themselves. More effective have been the strong responses from some Arab states, especially Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Recently the Emirati ambassador to the U.S., Youssef al-‘Otaiba, wrote an opinion piece in Israel’s daily Yediot Ahronot, laying out the negative impact that annexation would have on Israel’s prospects for normalization with the Arab world.
Indeed, the stakes for all sides are very high. For the Palestinians, annexation could effectively erase any realistic hope of achieving their national aspirations. A limited annexation would be just as bad for them as an expansive one. Once the red line of territorial acquisition has been crossed, it will be hard for future Israeli governments to resist the temptation for more.
The stakes for Israel are high as well. Unilateral annexation will inevitably lead the country down the path toward a one-state reality, calling into question Israel’s Jewish and democratic character. Given that possibility, one would hope that the Israelis think long and hard before going in that direction.