Events in Israel are moving very rapidly. As I write this, Prime Minister Netanyahu appeared before the Jerusalem municipal court to enter a plea on serious criminal charges. Last week, a new coalition government was sworn in, a national emergency government, ostensibly to expend most of its energy dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Under the coalition agreement, the government has committed itself to focusing on almost exclusively on containing and defeating covid-19. The one exception was to fulfill an election promise that Netanyahu had made to bring portions of the West Bank, aka Judea and Samaria, under Israeli sovereignty — that is, de jure annexation.
The question that must be asked is “Why annexation now?” Where does annexation of occupied territories fit into the announced policy priorities of an emergency government that first and foremost should be focused on the existential threat posed by the corona pandemic?
And then there are the moral, strategic, economic, and diplomatic problems inherent with annexation. Over the past 50-plus years, Israel has had a policy of creeping annexation: expanding settlements, allowing illegal settlements to remain, and imposing severe restrictions on Palestinian development. The purpose and effect of the settlement enterprise has been effectively to block the development of Palestinian territorial contiguity and thus to insure that any future Palestinian state will be a series of disconnected cities and towns, neither politically nor economically viable.
If and when the Israeli government votes to annex West Bank settlements to Israel, those territories would come under Israel’s full legal (Israeli law) authority. According to Israeli security experts, this most likely would lead to the collapse or dismantling of the Palestinian Authority. Israel then would be forced to take responsibility for security in areas A and B (Palestinian cities and towns). This will put a huge additional strategic burden on the IDF and on the Israeli economy. The IDF, which for years has had the cooperation of the Palestinian security forces in those areas, then would be dealing with the violent protest that could culminate in a new intifada.
Additionally, in the face of this existential threat, Palestinian leadership (Fatah and Hamas) could unite, finally reject the two-state idea, and call upon the international community to press for the one-state solution. That would be based on the fact that with annexation, Israel effectively would have rejected the possibility of a two-state solution for one binational state. This state either would have to grant full political rights to all citizens, Jewish and Arab, or confer another legal status on its Palestinian residents.
In such a scenario, the Zionist dream of a Jewish state is set aside. In its place, one state for two peoples. The problem for Israel is clear: Give the Arabs full equal rights and the new state will be Palestinian with a large Jewish minority. Give the Arabs less than full rights (ie. no voting rights) and you have a non-democratic state of Israel, effectively an apartheid-like reality.
Additionally, the effect upon diplomatic relations with Jordan, Egypt, and Israel’s European allies must be considered, including the response of a large percentage of diaspora Jews who would find it difficult to identify with a non-Zionist Jewish minority state of Palestine.
According to Haggai El-Ad of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, annexation will make the present reality — full Israeli control of the West Bank — a matter of public official record. The fact is that Israel already has full control of the entire territory (areas A, B, and C), in settlement blocks, isolated settlements, and the Jordan Valley. The settlers already enjoy full civil rights equal to all Israeli citizens. Israel has the cooperation of the Palestinian Authority in managing residents’ everyday lives, including security control of Palestinians. The settlement project, 600,000 settlers in more than 250 settlements, is not reversible.
The prospect of annexation raises this question: Can Israel be considered a true democracy? Because Israel rules over millions of people — West Bank Palestinians — who have limited rights and no possibility of national self-determination, Palestinian Arabs are effectively stateless. And because the nation-state law effectively relegates Arab citizens of Israel and the Arabic language to second-class status, in effect making Israel an ethno-state.
The real objective of the push by Netanyahu and the settler movement is to extend Israeli sovereignty over more and more of the land between the sea and the Jordan River, and thus to complete the project of eliminating the possibility of the creation of a state of Palestine, alongside Israel.
Perhaps Mr. Netanyahu believes that the world now is so totally preoccupied with the pandemic that his move toward annexation will go ahead without protest. Perhaps he fears that his friend in the White House may not be around after November, so better to strike while the griddle is hot.