Uncertainty hangs over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pending decision on whether to annex as much a 30% of the West Bank, including the possibility of all existing Israeli settlements there and the entire Jordan Valley. Should he proceed, the proposal will go before the Israeli cabinet and the Knesset, where it will likely win approval.
Predictably, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas strongly objects. He’s already discontinued security cooperation with Israel, halted receipt of Israeli tax collections on behalf of the PA and closed off travel of Palestinians to Israel. Many of these actions harm Israel little but could severely impact some Palestinians, for example, those needing medical attention. Abbas even threatened to try any Israeli arrested in Palestine for a crime. And he has renounced the Palestinians’ commitments under the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords. The clear message is that should Israel follow through, it will have resigned itself to an occupying power for the duration.
What the “Deal of the Century” Means for Israel and Palestine
One thing Abbas and other PA officials have avoided doing is calling for another intifada, or Palestinian uprising. Most Palestinians remember the bitter result of their last intifada in 2000-05 following the failed Camp David II talks. Israel Defense Forces moved in mass into the West Bank and left destruction and death in their wake. In the end, the failed uprising effectively marked the end of the Israeli left, previously the vanguard of the peace movement in Israel.
Finally, any violence this time could backfire and lead to calls for the removal or resignation of Abbas and the rest of the PA leadership. Even peaceful demonstrations could easily spiral out of control, leaving only the dangerous prospects of Palestinian security forces having to crack down on Palestinians and of the real possibility of serious violence.
A Deal Killer
The EU and various member states have also expressed objections to any annexation, pledging not to recognize the actions and warning of dire consequences for the region. More than a thousand European MPs have condemned annexation, echoing the arguments of many that it would doom any chance of a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Last month, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell voiced similar opposition, but the EU has so far avoided threatening trade sanctions, though that may still be in the cards for some. The EU is Israel’s largest trading partner.
In addressing a virtual meeting of the UN Security Council on June 24, Secretary General Antonio Guterres characterized the pending annexation as a “watershed moment” and a “most serious violation of international law.” Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit made similar claims, suggesting it would spell the end of what little hope Palestinians may have for an independent state. However, the UNSC took no formal action.
King Abdullah II of Jordan, perhaps Israel’s closest relationship in the Middle East, warned that annexation “would lead to a massive conflict” with his country. One of the more startling statements, however, came from the UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yousef al Otaiba, in an op-ed published in Hebrew in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot. In the editorial, entitled “Annexation or Normalization,” al Otaiba reviews progress to date as well as possibilities for future cooperation between Israel and the UAE and other Arab states on security, trade, technology and cultural exchanges, all areas in which Israel has long sought relations with Arabs.
Many Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Oman, have already forged links, all be it unofficial, with Israel. But al Otaiba warned all that and future prospects of formal diplomatic ties were at risk now. Not only Arab-Israeli relations but an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would be irrevocably checked by annexation. The op-ed was the most direct and blunt expression of views held by virtually all Arab states.
According to one poll, only half of Israelis support annexation, even though they support eventual Israeli sovereignty over most settlements in a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians. Former Israeli security officials have also expressed grave reservations over annexation, explaining that even taking control of the Jordan Valley would offer Israel no value added for its security since it already retains almost complete security control.
Furthermore, they argue that the larger risk from annexation is that it would leave Palestinians with little possibility of their own state and make a single state, in which Palestinians would seek equal rights, as the only possible outcome. In their view, that would present an even graver threat to the Jewish state’s prevailing Jewish and democratic character. Some far-right conservative Israelis also oppose annexation since, under the Trump peace plan signed by Netanyahu, it would automatically recognize the Palestinians’ right to an independent state, which they reject.
Fate Hanging on a Single Decider
Amidst all that critical clamor, the one voice not heard has been that of the US. And it is the only one to be taken seriously by Netanyahu. So far, apart from the language of the Trump peace plan, there has been no formal word from official Washington on the pending annexation, not even a tweet from the congenital tweeter-in-chief, Mr. Trump. An earlier initiative to advance annexation was quietly nixed by the White House.
In the presidential campaign, foreign policy is unlikely to play a major role for most American voters. However, this issue and the ongoing feud between the US and Iran will unquestionably receive attention. Trump’s hardcore supporters would enthusiastically embrace an official nod toward Jerusalem. But as he continues to poll between six and 12 percentage points behind expected Democratic opponent Joe Biden, Trump will need to reach independent and undecided voters. Approving annexation and killing the two-state solution aren’t likely to endear him to those. Biden has already expressed his strong objection to annexation. The White House will have to decide on its position no later than next week.
As unlikely and out of character as it might be, one way to forestall all of this is for Abbas to announce ahead of the annexation decision that he’s willing to reenter into negotiations with the US side on the Trump plan. First, it will buy the Palestinians time, especially since the Trump administration won’t have much bandwidth for negotiations as the presidential campaign moves into the final stretch in September. Second, the Trump plan leaves ample space for continued negotiation on borders and other issues most vital to the Palestinians, including ensuring their lands in the West Bank remain contiguous and retaining a larger portion of the Jordan Valley. Lastly, it would represent a gesture rarely seen from the Palestinian side and place them on a more favorable trajectory vis-à-vis both Washington and the Israeli public.
The real decider in the matter, however, will be Donald Trump. Netanyahu is loath to cross the US president, who has been more supportive of Israel than any of his predecessors. For the Israelis and Netanyahu, it’s doubtful they’ll ever have an opportunity like this again, short of a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians. Neither Netanyahu nor any future Israeli prime minister will see the likes of another US president so one-sidedly supportive.
The notion that someone so previously ignorant of the many complexities of this conflict and who has been so weighted to one side may be making the most consequential decision in the conflict in the last 20 years is nothing less than stupefying. But then the ever-mercurial and unpredictable Donald Trump has done that a lot over the last three and a half years.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.