1. What’s the West Bank?
It’s a landlocked block of territory west of the Jordan River where 2.6 million Palestinians live. An additional 300,000 reside in east Jerusalem, and 1.9 million live in the Gaza Strip, a sliver of Mediterranean coastline between Israel and Egypt. These areas are among the lands captured by Israel from neighboring Arab countries in the 1967 Middle East war. The West Bank is also home to more than 400,000 Jewish Israeli settlers. They moved to the West Bank after 1967 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.
2. What does Israel plan to annex?
Netanyahu’s government wants to annex the roughly 130 officially recognized Israeli settlements plus more than 100 settler outposts sprinkled throughout the West Bank, as well as the Jordan Valley, a strip along the territory’s eastern frontier. Israeli security officials argue that the valley serves as a necessary bulwark against potential attacks of the kind that occurred in 1948, when Arab countries assaulted Israel after rejecting a United Nations plan partitioning the British-ruled Holy Land.
3. Why now?
Netanyahu has called his annexation plan a “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” That’s because it has unprecedented support from Israel’s most important ally, the U.S., so long as the American president is Donald Trump, who faces re-election in November. Under Trump’s vision of a final peace deal, unveiled in late January, Israel would keep the settlements and the Jordan Valley. The Palestinians, who lay claim to all of the West Bank, flatly rejected the plan, but U.S. officials gave Israel a green light to annex those areas anyway, though they later counseled against acting before Israel’s March 2 election. Previous U.S. administrations have taken the position that any new borders should be negotiated and agreed by the two sides. Under Trump, the U.S. has broken other longstanding policies to recognize Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, which it previously considered a contested city, and Israel’s annexation of the southern part of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau it captured from Syria in 1967.
4. How do Israelis view the annexation plan?
An August poll by the Israel Democracy Institute indicated more Israelis support annexation than oppose it as long as it has U.S. backing. The peace camp in Israel has diminished in size and strength since the Oslo accords of the 1990s opened the possibility of two states living side by side in harmony. The outbreak of the Palestinian uprising against Israel in late 2000 after years of troubled negotiations 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.
5. How have neighboring states responded?
The Arab League rejected the Trump blueprint on which Netanyahu’s annexation plan is based. However, the reaction of individual Arab governments to Trump’s vision was so mild that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attacked them for failing to condemn it. (For his part, Erdogan said it amounts to stealing Palestinian lands.) Back in September, when Netanyahu talked up his annexation plan in advance of an election, representatives of regional powers including 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. Over recent years, 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.
6. What would annexation mean?
In terms of practical realities, not much. Under the Oslo accords, Palestinians already have only limited self-rule in the West Bank, and Israel maintains overall security control and exclusive jurisdiction over the settlers. As it is, the presence of settlements and of Israeli forces in the West Bank makes everyday life difficult for Palestinians. Barriers, fences and buffer zones meant to secure settlers restrict the freedom, movement and commerce of Palestinians.
7. So what would it change?
Prospects for a future Palestinian state. Before peace talks broke down, Palestinian representatives had agreed that in a final deal, the border would be redrawn so that Israel would keep many settlements -- in exchange for territory elsewhere, though not as envisioned in Trump’s plan. With all of the settlements cut out of the West Bank, a future Palestinian state would be a disjointed patchwork of enclaves. That could impede the development of infrastructure and the movement of people and goods, putting that state’s viability in question. With the Jordan Valley removed as well, the state would be completely surrounded by Israel and thus captive to it.
8. What leverage do Palestinians have?
Palestinian militants have long sought to influence Israel’s behavior through acts of violence against Israeli civilians. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has announced that agreements providing for security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the limited self-rule government established under the Oslo accords, are no longer in force. It’s an oft-made threat that, if implemented, could hobble Israel’s ability to thwart attacks and endanger the mutual goal of keeping Hamas from wresting control of the West Bank from the Palestinian Authority as it did Gaza. The Palestinians have also revived a threat to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, thus forcing Israel to again take full responsibility for providing services to millions of Palestinians.
9. Do the Palestinians have legal recourse?
Annexing territory in the West Bank would provide fodder at the International Criminal Court, which has said it intends to investigate Palestinian claims that Israel committed war crimes. The International Court of Justice, a branch of the United Nations, concluded in 2004 that the West Bank and Gaza Strip are occupied territories. That means the Fourth Geneva Convention, an international treaty governing conquered lands, 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 both courts as biased against it and takes the position that the West Bank, which it captured from Jordan, is “disputed” rather than “occupied” because Jordan’s own annexation of it in 1950 wasn’t internationally recognized.
--With assistance from Samuel Dodge.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ivan Levingston in Tel Aviv at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lin Noueihed at firstname.lastname@example.org, Lisa Beyer, Amy Teibel
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