Israel should tread carefully when it comes to annexation
Out of the blue, US President Donald Trump will host a summit on Tuesday. It will be at the White House between him and the only two men likely to be the next Israeli prime minister. But forget any “deal of the century,” however it may be labeled — the self-serving agenda is to determine how to fast forward the attendees’ political and electoral agendas. This is to be achieved by determining how much territory to add to the state of Israel, which bits of the West Bank to annex to the parts already annexed in East Jerusalem in 1967. Let us be clear, peace between Israelis and Palestinians is not a consideration. It is just cosmetics.
If there is a peace deal, it will be between these two rivals, Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, as to who will be the next Israeli prime minister and whether Netanyahu gets his much-cherished immunity from prosecution. Some think Trump might be in the mood to rescue his “friend” Netanyahu by pushing Gantz into some power-sharing arrangement. But, beware, Trump does not have friends; he has interests. Right now, it is to escape impeachment and win the November US presidential election — nothing else. His two guests will be expected to play ball with this agenda. If either falls short, they risk being tossed into the Twitter equivalent of the naughty room.
Palestinians, meanwhile, risk being made to pay for the legal difficulties that are besetting the US president and the Israeli prime minister, with Trump and Netanyahu both craving a great distraction. The Senate is considering Trump’s impeachment, even if it has few hallmarks of a judicial process — more of a partisan screaming match. Republican senators are so uninterested they are playing with fidget spinners and stress balls.
Netanyahu is even more brazen. He is demanding immunity and is effectively holding the Israeli political system hostage until he gets it. The Knesset is set to discuss his immunity while Netanyahu is with Trump in Washington. The timing is not accidental. Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu and potential kingmaker, accused “Bibi” of “fleeing,” claiming that: “Instead of driving two-and-a-half kilometers to the Knesset, he prefers to fly 9,500 kilometers to Washington.”
All of this has put Gantz, Netanyahu’s rival for the premiership, in a tailspin. His initial reaction was to declare that any publication of Trump’s plan would be an “outright intervention” in the Israeli election campaign. On reflection, he determined that he could not afford to anger Trump, so changed his mind. Even then, on Friday, he again hesitated, demanding a separate meeting with Trump so as not to look too much as if he is a bit-part player in the Trump-Netanyahu roadshow. Gantz might be a retired general but, on the political battlefield, he risks being outmaneuvered.
The contents of the plan are hazy but expectations are low, not least as Netanyahu felt confident enough to invite a coterie of settler leaders to accompany him. Above all, one wonders, how much of the West Bank will Israel consume? Trump has zero objections to Israeli annexation, especially as it would delight his evangelical and pro-Israel support base. His administration has already upended the traditional US position by no longer considering settlements to be illegal.
Annexing the Jordan Valley is a near-certainty. Ever since 1967, the then-ruling Labor Party had planned for this and it is a consensus in Israeli politics. The major settlement areas may also be annexed with the Jerusalem settlements. The more isolated settlements on the central hills of the West Bank or around Hebron are marginally more controversial. Yet all Israeli leaders know this may be their best chance to realize their expansionist dreams. Netanyahu spoke for them all when he declared that: “In the White House today is the greatest friend that Israel has ever had.” The betting must be that both Israeli rivals will seek Trump’s green light to steal the maximum territory, and neither of them will want to be seen as weaker than the other.
The Palestinian leadership has issued a pre-emptive rejection, with little expectation of blocking it. They are not even being consulted. If Area C — which covers 61 percent of the West Bank — is annexed as some fear, more than 200 separate, semi-autonomous Palestinian areas will be wedged inside Israeli territory. Annexation would, in any event, just be the formalization of an intolerable status quo with no upsides.
Palestinian refusal will merely be welcomed as an excuse to initiate the annexation as a fait accompli, regardless of the consequences. King Abdullah of Jordan has threatened to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel in the event of the Jordan Valley being annexed. Given Jordanian public sentiment, he may feel he has little choice.
All Israeli leaders know this may be their best chance to realize their expansionist dreams.
Just as with the Iran nuclear deal, the rest of the international community is watching from the sidelines, as decades of international consensus is about to be tossed into the Trump shredder. How will other states react? The response will probably hover between lukewarm and cold. Certain states will hesitate to antagonize Trump more than they may have already. The EU will no doubt stick to its long-term position, with a complete non-recognition of any annexation and insistence on a return to the negotiating table.
Yet, should annexation go ahead, can these powers just ignore the colossal violation of international law and human rights? The precedent would be alarming. Remember, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea, the EU immediately slapped on sanctions that remain in place today. If consistency was a facet of international relations, Israel would face exactly the same scenario.
Israel should tread carefully. What would be the future for Palestinian Bantustans? And if meaningful Palestinian statehood is not on the table, how long before Palestinians start an equal rights campaign that insists both peoples should have the same rights in one state?
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech