Not Now, Not Never
Mouin Rabbani on the annexation of the West Bank
In January, the Trump administration published its vision for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Entitled Peace to Prosperity, it proposed a series of policies more extreme than those of the Israeli government. It was compiled by a team led by the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner. Its other members were the US ambassador to Israel and Donald Trump’s former bankruptcy lawyer, David Friedman; the US special representative for international negotiations and the Trump Organisation’s former chief legal officer, Jason Greenblatt; his successor, Avi Berkowitz; and, informally, Binyamin Netanyahu and his senior advisers. All have been personally involved in furthering Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Peace to Prosperity is a charter for the resolution of the conflict on exclusively Israeli terms masquerading as a peace plan. Most prominently, it throws the full weight of US power behind Israel’s annexation of more than a third of the West Bank. It has been characterised as the final blow to the two-state paradigm, but it’s more like a consolidation of the existing one-state reality. Israel’s 2018 Nation State Law enshrines as a constitutional principle the notion that the Jewish people alone are entitled to self-determination in the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, and puts paid to the idea that Israel’s Palestinian citizens might attain equality of rights and status.
The Trump administration’s policies and initiatives towards the Arab-Israeli conflict – including the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017; the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights in 2019; Peace to Prosperity in 2020 – have been rightly denounced as premeditated assaults on international law and the international political consensus. Claims that such measures form a radical departure from traditional US policy are less persuasive, however. Since 1967, Washington has systematically aided and abetted Israel’s colonial expansion in the West Bank. Annexation, the ripe fruit of US as much as Israeli policy, is a formalisation rather than transformation of the resulting reality.
Against this background, and in the more immediate context of Israel’s third election in a year and Netanyahu’s increasingly desperate efforts to retain the premiership in order to neutralise a slew of corruption indictments, the Israeli prime minister several months ago proclaimed his intention to annex all West Bank settlements and the entire Jordan Valley on 1 July 2020. Yet despite his increasingly belligerent insistence that the moment was nigh, the date passed without any declaration. Whether this hiatus is temporary or indefinite will depend on a number of factors, including developments in Israeli and US politics, their ramifications for the US-Israeli relationship, and eventual changes in the broader regional and international environment.
There has been a perceptible shift in attitudes towards the occupation among Israel’s policy elites over the past two decades. Until 2000, the primary distinction was between those who preferred to maintain the status quo as a way to pursue creeping annexation with minimal international opposition, and those who wanted a formal peace agreement that would enable Israel to permanently retain West Bank territory with Arab and international acquiescence. As Israeli politics and society have shifted ever rightwards, the current division is between adherents of the status quo, and advocates of the formal annexation of parts or all of the West Bank. Peace to Prosperity effectively resolved the debate in the annexationists’ favour.
With Israel’s increasingly fractious coalition government straining under the pressures of the coronavirus pandemic and much else, the prospect of yet another election this year cannot be ruled out. Should it come to pass, Netanyahu may well resort to annexation to bolster his position. If he loses, his most likely successors are to be found even further right, their annexationist credentials beyond reproach. The conventional wisdom that Israel will not undertake unilateral measures without explicit US permission may be upended in the nationalist frenzy of another election campaign.
David Elhayani, the head of the Yesha Council, which represents nearly half a million West Bank settlers, last month denounced Peace to Prosperity as a ‘strategic threat’ to Israel. Trump and Kushner had ‘proven that they are not friends of the state of Israel’, he said, by denying Israel licence to annex the West Bank in its entirety. Elhayani, other settler leaders and far-right luminaries also rejected Netanyahu’s annexation proposals as insufficient. The Israeli government currently has little interest in annexing Palestinian population centres in the West Bank, on the principle of maximum territory with minimum Arabs, but that may yet change.
Because the annexationist agenda is organically identified with the Trump presidency, its fate is tied to the US election in November. Should Trump win a second term, it is inconceivable that Israel will refrain from far-reaching acts of annexation during the next four years. More immediately, Trump may seek to energise his faltering re-election campaign by pressing Israel to proceed expeditiously, to foment greater enthusiasm for his candidacy on the evangelical Christian right and other core constituencies.
A Biden presidency, by contrast, is likely to remove annexation from the political agenda. As Aaron David Miller points out, Israel has little to fear from Biden, who has made his peace not only with the status quo but with many of Trump’s initiatives in the Middle East, and will in any case be preoccupied with reconstituting the US government. Netanyahu, almost single-handedly responsible for Israel’s slow but steady transformation from an American to a Republican cause, may seek to exploit the interregnum between the November election and January inauguration as a final window of opportunity for annexation. If he does, there will be considerable pressure from the increasingly left-leaning Democratic rank-and-file for the new administration not to look the other way.
This side of November, the Trump administration remains divided between those who, like Friedman and Mike Pompeo, insist annexation is an ‘Israeli decision’ and would like it to have happened yesterday, and others, led by Kushner, who demand prior agreement on the details with Washington. If there are any US officials who believe the Palestinians should have a say in the dispensation of their territory, they are incommunicado.
Perhaps alone among his colleagues, Kushner appears to have genuinely believed he was laying the basis for productive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that would lead to a historic peace and enable the full normalisation of Israel’s relations with his other friends, the leaders of the Gulf states. When the Palestinians predictably rejected his initiative out of hand, and the Gulf states just as unsurprisingly failed to make good on their assurances of delivering the Palestinians and embracing the Israelis, instead endorsing an Arab League resolution that condemned annexation as a war crime, ‘the daughter’s husband’, as Mahmoud Abbas calls him, hit the pause button. As well as requiring US-Israeli agreement on a map, Kushner demanded that the main coalition partners in the Israeli government agree on the contours of annexation, which he knew they wouldn’t. Thus 1 July came and went.
In the larger scheme of things, it was the Arab states’ passive frustration of Kushner’s grand diplomatic ambitions rather than any concrete action on their part that probably did most to put annexation on the back burner. The European response – measured expressions of disapproval and polite appeals to reverse course, in contrast to the EU’s reaction to the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea – may also have played a modest role. More consequential is the role of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. According to Norman Finkelstein, who has exhaustively studied the court’s ongoing consideration of its competence with respect to Israeli conduct in the occupied Palestinian territories, Netanyahu is ‘holding up on annexation’ until the pre-trial chamber of the ICC reaches a decision on the scope of its territorial jurisdiction.
If and when annexation does come, it would be out of character for Israel to take more than a third of the West Bank in one fell swoop. It could do if it felt the pressure of the clock running down, but it’s more likely to begin by seizing a settlement or two that US diplomatic initiatives have already allocated to Israel, or perhaps territory west of the Separation Wall, in order both to establish precedent and to assess the Palestinian, regional and international reactions before proceeding further.
Of course, any annexation, no matter how large or small, is a direct, deliberate and flagrant affront to the rules and norms for international conduct enshrined in the aftermath of the Second World War. For many in Washington, such as Trump administration alumni John Bolton and Steve Bannon, that is precisely its appeal.
Largely missing from this story are the Palestinians. Under the catastrophic stewardship of Mahmoud Abbas they have been transformed into a politically inconsequential demographic reality, incapable of drawing meaningful attention to themselves or their plight. Trump, Kushner and Netanyahu have inadvertently placed the Question of Palestine back on the international agenda. In doing so they have provided the Palestinians with perhaps a final opportunity to arrest and reverse the disintegration of their national movement, and convert their dream of freedom and national liberation from a receding mirage to a litmus test for the integrity of the international system that may yet become political reality.