A prominent local Israel scholar on why a West Bank annexation could be one of the country’s greatest mistakes.
Israel’s unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank could be imminent. It would be one of Israel’s greatest mistakes.
I share the life-long, deep desire of Israelis and Palestinians for peace. I am convinced that this will only happen through a two-state solution which recognizes both people’s desire for and right to self-determination. This resolution paradigm — a Jewish majority state and a Palestinian majority state existing alongside one another — has existed almost as long as the conflict itself. Although the stagnation in the peace process has undermined support for this solution, Israeli and Palestinian polls have shown over many years that both peoples prefer this solution significantly more than any other single alternative.
The temptation by some to unilaterally annex territory from the West Bank, emboldened by encouragement by the Trump administration, must be strongly and vehemently resisted by Israelis. There are no benefits, and only multiple and grave costs.
The Israeli military leadership has strongly opposed unilateral annexation, warning of likely spikes in violence, while the Palestinian Authority could dismantle itself, leaving Israel solely responsible for security in the entire West Bank. A letter dated Aug. 27, 2019, signed by 25 retired Israel Defense Force commanders and former government security heads, and addressed to four U.S. House representatives, reaffirmed the importance of rejecting unilateral steps and maintaining the two-state paradigm.
Likewise, both the Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS) and the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) warn of the dangerous security consequences of unilateral annexation, including Hamas capitalizing on the vacuum left by the potential collapse of the PA; the end to the strengthening of relations with many Sunni states that has quietly been taking place over the last decade, who are Israel’s allies in balancing against Iran; and imperiling the peace agreement with Jordan. On top of that, Amos Gilad, former director of Policy and Political-Military Affairs at the Defense Ministry, predicts a diplomatic nightmare, in which Israel becomes further isolated and ostracized by countries and populations around the world.
Deepening disillusionment could also lead to further deterioration in public support among Israelis and Palestinians for a two-state solution, which could also eventually undermine international legitimacy for this solution. Benny Gantz, Israel’s current defense minister and alternate prime minister, and Israeli’s Foreign Minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, both have warned that unilateral annexation should not happen without international backing — and that backing does not exist.
Thus, even for those whose only concern might be Israeli security and well-being, this move would be a disaster.
Israel will be left with no peace agreement, an increase in violent attacks, greater threats to its democracy, undermined legitimacy of the two-state solution, the elimination of existing Palestinian partners to peace and significantly increased threats to its legitimacy globally. Most of all, it undermines its own Zionist dream of having a democratic, Jewish state, that is also a state for all its citizens, which can live in peace alongside its neighbors. It also all but extinguishes legitimate Palestinian dreams of having their own state.
If the goal is to annex all settlements as part of Israel, then we should all be clear — despite the magical thinking or obfuscation represented by the Trump plan — that this would mean the end of the two-state solution: It would render impossible a viable Palestinian state that would be accepted by Palestinians. If, however, as some in Israel now suggest, the goal is primarily to annex large settlement blocs near Jerusalem, then Israel would achieve much more in keeping those through a process of swaps and negotiation than it would bearing all the costs and none of the benefits of unilateral annexation.
Such swaps and annexation of large settlement blocks have been the staple of numerous sets of peace negotiations: Olmert’s 2008 offer, the Clinton Parameters and Arab League declarations, all envision a peace agreement with borders based on the 1967 borders, with swaps that would leave some large settlement blocs (like those near Jerusalem) in Israeli hands.
If it takes the path of unilateral annexation, instead of getting what it wants with all the benefits of a peace deal, Israel would lose the support of long-standing, moderate, genuine partners for peace such as Salam Fayyad, former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, who is driven now, based on just the threat of unilateral annexation, to advocating that Palestinians harden their positions and go back to demanding either a Palestinian state with 1967 borders without any swaps or a one-state solution in which Palestinians would eventually be the majority of that state. In a completely unnecessary unilateral move, Israel would be losing its best partners for a lasting peace.
A glimmer of hope in this dark moment, however, remains for those brave and far-sighted enough to pursue it. On June 29, in a letter to the Quartet on the Middle East, the Palestinian Authority said it is prepared to renew negotiations with Israel and agree to minor territorial exchanges. This is a shift, and should be urgently pursued.
The U.S. can help Israel make this decision. Joe Biden, who according to current polls is likely to be the next U.S. president, has publicly and strongly opposed unilateral annexation, as have 191 Democratic House representatives. As Paul Scham, director of the University of Maryland Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, has recently written, Biden should now make clear that he will not recognize any such annexations if he becomes president. Polling shows that only a quarter of Israelis support unilateral annexation if the U.S. does not support it. For anyone, Republican or Democrat, concerned with Israel’s well-being — as well as international law, human rights and the right to self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians — the time is now to make our opposition to unilateral annexation known, and dissuade Israel from taking any such steps.
Yael S. Aronoff is Serling Chair in Israel Studies and Director, Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and Modern Israel at Michigan State University.