US looking for way out of annexation dilemma

US looking for way out of annexation dilemma

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outlines plans to annex parts of the West Bank in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, Israel, Sept. 10, 2019. (Reuters)

The White House is in a bind over whether to sanction Israel’s planned annexation of parts of the West Bank, as suggested by President Donald Trump’s peace plan that he presented in January. Senior US officials involved in the issue last week met for two days in Washington to discuss whether or not to give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the green light to go ahead with some form of annexation. The meetings exposed deep divisions within the administration. One reason for them delaying a decision was the fact that Netanyahu and his coalition partner, Benny Gantz, are yet to agree on what the annexation should entail.

Under the coalition agreement reached in March, Netanyahu does not need Gantz’s approval to put the annexation law to a vote in the Cabinet and Knesset any time after a deadline passes on Wednesday. But the Trump administration insists that the Israeli government be united on this issue.

Netanyahu needs Trump’s backing before he indulges in one of the most controversial — and illegal — moves of his long reign as premier. The threat of annexation (the far right and ardent Zionists call it “application of sovereignty”) has enraged Arab and European countries. The Palestinians have rejected Trump’s plan altogether and severed ties with the White House. Jordan warned that any form of annexation would result in a “massive conflict” with Israel, with whom it has a peace treaty and economic ties. Saudi Arabia underlined its position in support of the two-state solution based on the Arab Peace Initiative. More than 1,000 lawmakers from across Europe called for countermeasures against Israel if it carried out any form of annexation.

But even if these reactions were not enough to rein in Netanyahu, then the fact that only a minority of Israelis, about 27 percent, support the move should. In fact, a number of prominent former military and security officials warned that annexation would be a bad idea that brought no benefits while putting the country at risk both domestically and internationally. The logic being that Israel has been the de facto ruler of the West Bank for the last 50-plus years and continues to be treated as a normal state by the rest of the world. It is building and expanding settlements while cooperating with the Palestinian Authority (PA) despite the absence of a peace process. Why risk all that?

Netanyahu wants to set a precedent even if annexation is symbolic and gradual. While paying lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state, which is flatly rejected by Jewish settlers and far-right Israelis, he continues to blame the Palestinians for failing to negotiate. The reality is he wants to pick and choose from Trump’s peace plan: Going ahead with annexation while blaming the Palestinians for not embracing the US president’s “realistic” offer.

As things stand, the White House is looking for a “sweet spot” where it can find a face-saving path for Netanyahu to carry out some form of annexation, while making sure that the Palestinians and the Arabs remain on board. As a step in that direction, Jordan and the Palestinians have been informed that the Jordan Valley, which constitutes more than 20 percent of the West Bank, will not be annexed at this stage. Moreover, there is chatter among top Israeli circles that, come the deadline on Wednesday, Netanyahu will announce that annexation will be limited to one or two major Jewish settlements adjacent to Jerusalem. Will that be enough to placate the Palestinians and the rest of the world?

Annexation is a clear violation of international law, UN resolutions and the Geneva Conventions. It also shifts the debate from the real issue, which is occupation. It kills the idea of a viable, contiguous and sovereign Palestinian state. It identifies Israel as an apartheid state, ruling over indigenous people without giving them civil and political rights.

For President Mahmoud Abbas, who chose to break ties with the Trump administration rather than engage it, the choice can only be to disband the PA and hand over responsibility of administering the Occupied Territories back to Israel as an occupying power. For Israel, this would be a political and economic disaster.

Some key US officials, and American Zionists, appear to have realized that unilateral annexation would be a bad idea and a liability for Israel.

Osama Al-Sharif

Some key US officials, and American Zionists, appear to have realized that unilateral annexation would be a bad idea and a liability for Israel. The ideal way forward would be to put a freeze on the whole thing, for now, pending the outcome of November’s US presidential election. But Netanyahu, who is said to have doubts about Trump’s re-election chances, would hate to miss what he sees as a historic opportunity. The entire project is now in limbo, as domestic Israeli politics make it difficult for Netanyahu to make a move in any direction.

The US can continue to insist that Netanyahu and Gantz reach an agreement, which until now seems implausible, or throw the gauntlet down to the entire world and allow Netanyahu to walk freely into what is in fact a political minefield.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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