Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge to start annexing West Bank land if he’s re-elected Sept. 17 would have truly shocked once upon a time. Since Israel captured the territory from Jordan in 1967, its leaders had refrained from such a promise because of its questionable legality and the international outcry it would provoke. The Palestinians claim the territory as the core of a future state, so the extension of Israeli sovereignty there would deal a blow to their aspirations. But annexation has gained acceptance among Israelis as the prospects for a permanent peace deal with the Palestinians have dimmed. And Arab leaders, who in the past would have responded with outrage, are occupied with other matters.
1. What’s the West Bank?
It’s a landlocked block of territory west of the Jordan River that is among the lands captured by Israel from neighboring Arab countries in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel has annexed the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau it took from Syria, and the eastern section of Jerusalem, which it seized from Jordan. But until recently it didn’t discuss extending its sovereignty to the West Bank. The patch of land is home to about 3 million Palestinians and more than 400,000 Jewish Israelis who went to live there because they received government incentives, see it as the cradle of Judaism, view it as a strategically valuable area Israel must keep or some combination of those factors. In the course of a quarter of a century of on-again, off-again peace talks, the number of these so-called settlers has roughly quadrupled, making any future transfer of the territory to Palestinian control increasingly difficult.
2. What authority do Palestinians have in the West Bank?
The 1993 Oslo accords gave Palestinians limited self-rule in the West Bank and the smaller Gaza Strip, a sliver of Mediterranean coastline between Israel and Egypt that’s home to 1.9 million Palestinians. Israel maintains overall security control and exclusive jurisdiction over the West Bank’s Jewish inhabitants.
3. Could Israel legally annex the West Bank?
The International Court of Justice, a branch of the United Nations, concluded in 2004 that the West Bank and Gaza Strip are “occupied” territories, meaning the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to them, a position supported by an overwhelming majority of UN members in a 2017 vote. Under the 1949 convention, which protects civilians in times of war, states are precluded from changing the status of territories they occupy, for instance through annexation. Israel regards the International Court of Justice as biased against it and takes the position that the West Bank is “disputed” rather than “occupied” because Jordan’s own annexation of it in 1950 wasn’t internationally recognized. A separate issue is that if Israel takes full control of more Palestinians in the West Bank, it will either have to offer them citizenship and dilute the state’s Jewish majority, or deprive them of equal rights and raise accusations of apartheid.
4. What provoked Netanyahu’s promise?
His Likud party is in a tight race after he failed to form a government following a vote in April, so he’s going after votes that might be lost to other nationalist or religious parties. Netanyahu made a similar promise before the April election. He said he wants to start by annexing a sparsely populated area comprising the Jordan River valley and the region north of the Dead Sea, where an estimated 65,000 Palestinians and 11,000 Israelis live. Netanyahu has called his plan a “a once-in-lifetime opportunity” because presumably it would be supported by Israel’s most important ally, the U.S., so long as Donald Trump is its president. U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said in an interview this year that Israel has a right to annex some parts of the West Bank. Under Trump, the U.S. has broken longstanding policies to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and its sovereignty in Jerusalem, which it previously considered a disputed city. Trump faces re-election in 2020.
5. How is annexation viewed among Israelis?
According to an August poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, more Israelis would support it than oppose it, if it were to come with U.S. backing. The survey found 48% of Jewish Israelis supportive and 28% opposed, in those circumstances. Among Arab Israelis, who make up a fifth of Israel’s citizens, 11% were for and 56% against. The peace camp in Israel has diminished in size and strength since the Oslo accords opened the possibility of two states living side by side in harmony. The outbreak of a series of suicide bombings by Palestinians in late 2000 took a toll. And after the militant Islamist group Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 and turned it into a launchpad for rockets into Israel, more Israelis balked at the idea of ceding the West Bank to Palestinian control. The last round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations foundered in 2014.
6. How did others react to Netanyahu’s vow?
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Netanyahu’s plan, if realized, would constitute “a serious violation of international law.” Saeb Erekat, a longtime peace negotiator who is now secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said it would bury “any chance” of peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Representatives of key regional powers including Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates criticized his remarks. But the protestations weren’t as loud as they would have been in the past. Other matters, including the wars in Iraq and Syria, battles against Islamic State and conflicts over Kurdish aspirations have pushed the Palestinian issue down on the agenda. And the Gulf Arab countries are more focused on combating Iran -- an area of alignment with Israel.
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