Israeli annexation threat unites world in condemnation
In a way, it is tempting to wonder why there is so much fuss about Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank. The scope of the proposed annexation is not yet clear and, although it might end in the imposition of Israeli sovereignty over a third of the occupied Palestinian territory, it might also be merely a symbolic gesture concerning a very limited area of land.
Moreover, even without this act — one that is in defiance of international legal standards — a genuine peace process is currently no more than a pipe dream, which means that Israel will control these areas for the foreseeable future. After all, the current Israeli government is not interested in genuine peace negotiations, while the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah is more concerned with self-preservation and its rivalry with Hamas, which controls Gaza and for its part has a completely different notion of coexistence with the Jewish state. And, in the absence of an honest and willing international peace broker, what are the chances of a peace agreement in the foreseeable future anyway?
Under these circumstances, annexation can be seen as a reflection of the current situation and as the outlining of possible borders should a peace agreement based on the two-state solution ever materialize. Ultimately, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is planning, one way or another, to annex the settlements that house most of those settlers who, in any future peace agreement, are expected to remain within what would become the newly drawn borders of Israel.
However, one can hardly recall an international community that has been so united and vociferous, and justifiably so, in condemning Israel’s intentions to unilaterally annex occupied Palestinian land. Their silence would have been interpreted as an approval of territorial piracy, but the UN, the Arab League, individual Middle East states, EU governments and legislatures, and even Jewish organizations in different parts of the world share the view that unilateral annexation by Israel is a step too far and cannot be tolerated. Whether or not it changed the situation on the ground, it would be a display of contempt for the international community and international law, and would be perceived as the point at which any peaceful solution with the Palestinians is rendered obsolete.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who prefers to deal in understatements and is usually reluctant to risk upsetting the Trump administration, last week told a virtual meeting of the UN Security Council: “If implemented, annexation would constitute a most serious violation of international law, grievously harm the prospect of a two-state solution and undercut the possibilities of a renewal of negotiations. I call on the Israeli government to abandon its annexation plans.”
His peace envoy to the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov, warned in the same vein that annexation could deal a serious and irrevocable blow to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship that would have severely negative legal, security and economic implications; let alone further undermine decades of efforts to reach a point where a viable Palestinian state is established. A similar sentiment was also expressed by the Arab League, with its head, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, warning that Israel’s annexation plans are a provocation that can only inflame tensions and imperil peace in the Middle East to the point of igniting “a religious war in and beyond our region.”
Add to this that seven European nations — Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Norway and the UK — have warned in a joint statement that annexation will “severely undermine” prospects for resuming the Middle East peace process, and that more than 1,000 parliamentarians from across Europe signed a letter strongly opposing Israel’s plans, and the picture of an almost united worldwide front against this move becomes clear.
Israel will continue to question the real intentions of those in the international community who criticize its plans to carve up the West Bank. It will continue to accuse them of being Israel-haters, anti-Zionists and, for good measure, anti-Semites too. That might be true of a small minority, but the vast majority of Israel’s critics are nothing of the kind.
The Netanyahu government’s annexation plan is testing the international community and stretching its patience to the limit. It is bringing into question whether international law and international humanitarianism mean anything at all. It risks an eruption of violence between Israelis and Palestinians with regional and international consequences. It could destabilize Jordan. It will put pressure on Gulf countries to reverse their delicate rapprochement with Israel. It makes a mockery of the UN and its security council’s resolutions. And it questions Europe’s favorable treatment of Israel and cooperation with it on a wide range of strategic issues — cooperation with a country that is harming the EU’s interests in the region and raising tensions with the Muslim populations of its member states, to say nothing of another refugee crisis that may well result.
Although the international consensus decrying Israel’s land-grabbing plans is impressive in its rarity and intensity, and especially so for taking place in the midst of a devastating pandemic, which threatens many societies’ well-being in an unprecedented manner, it was also inevitable considering the likely dire consequences.
One can hardly recall an international community that has been so united and vociferous, and justifiably so.
It remains to be seen whether the international community will once again restrict itself solely to words of condemnation or whether it also intends to take measures to either stop the annexation bill or retaliate should it be presented to the Knesset in the coming days or weeks. Any international response will depend to a large extent on the scope of the land slated for annexation, on how many Palestinians will be part of this move while deprived of equal rights, and on the way it is framed by the Israeli government.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has always been better at delivering rhetoric than translating it into policies and courses of action. Yet, with his new status as the major defendant in a corruption trial, his calculus has changed and his actions are becoming ever more selfish and irresponsible. In the case of annexation, it remains to be seen whether the international community will match Netanyahu’s rhetoric word for word and, more importantly, deed for deed, including, for instance, by recognizing the state of Palestine.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg