The problem for Netanyahu and his allies is that much of the world opposes their plans. In Washington, Democrats and even some Republicans are against it, with Trump and Netanyahu’s close embrace widening a partisan split over support for Israel.
For the Palestinian leadership, annexation is a non-starter, and they have reacted angrily, suspending coordination with Israel on a host of day-to-day matters. “This is an issue in which we cannot be silent on,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told reporters last week. “Annexation is an existential threat for our future.” (Many ordinary Palestinians, though, may argue that it would simply be further confirmation of a long-standing status quo in which their freedoms and political rights are subordinate to — and often curtailed by — the imperatives of Israeli security.)
Though Netanyahu and Trump pay lip service to the future viability of an independent Palestinian state, no serious expert believes it would be more likely once the internationally brokered understandings of the past three decades get cleaved apart by a unilateral act of annexation. Instead, the specter of an entrenched apartheid looms.
The annexation of Palestinian territory by the Israeli government would make the occupation permanent. That is unacceptable. I was proud to address thousands of Israelis, Arabs and Jews, demonstrating in Tel Aviv against this outcome. pic.twitter.com/yP8voFi9At— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) June 9, 2020
Most of Washington’s foreign policy community recognizes the risks of the moment. “A cost-benefit analysis argues for preserving the status quo,” wrote Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Israel already enjoys complete security control over the West Bank, its civil law already governs its citizens living there, and it has largely succeeded in normalizing the international community to continued growth in settlement activity. Most relevant actors—the Palestinian Authority, many Arab states, key European capitals, UN Security Council members, and the United States—have reconciled themselves to this reality and do not actively oppose it.”
In other words, Netanyahu could endanger the paramount control Israel already maintains over the Palestinian territories, as well as the relative international quiescence over its actions there, including its expansion of settlements over the past couple of decades.
“From the Israeli perspective, there has been relative peace in the occupied territory, Palestinian security forces (and not Israel) have regularly policed Palestinian demonstrations, and the international community (and not the Israelis) has paid for much of the costs for the Palestinian security service,” Michael Lynk, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, told Today’s WorldView. But for the Palestinians, for whom a genuine state seems further away than ever, the bargains of the 1990s “look very lopsided,” Lynk added.
Now, some European governments have condemned the prospect of annexation — with one top diplomat recently branding it “a gross violation of international law” tantamount to “stealing.” Israel’s Arab neighbors are furious. Netanyahu’s relations with King Abdullah of Jordan have sharply deteriorated in recent months, with the royal reportedly refusing a phone call with the prime minister Monday.
Trump’s lieutenants, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, like to tout the cautious support for their efforts offered by other Arab states, particularly the Persian Gulf monarchies that have found common cause with Israel in large part thanks to their shared antipathy toward Iran. But on Friday, Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador in Washington, published an unprecedented op-ed in Hebrew in one of Israel’s biggest dailies, warning that annexation would be “a misguided provocation” that dooms the tacit rapprochement underway.
“We’d like to believe that Israel is an opportunity, not an enemy,” wrote Otaiba, a polished Emirati diplomat close with the Trump administration. “We face too many common dangers and see a huge potential in having warmer relations. A decision by Israel to annex will be an unmistakable sign indicating whether Israel views matters the same way.”
Even many prominent retired officials in the Israeli security establishment are opposed to annexation, fearing the collapse of the Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy and the rise of militant factions like Hamas. “What might start after July 1 with a Knesset vote on a partial annexation may soon thereafter spin out of control and lead to a complete Israeli takeover of the West Bank and Gaza, meaning that Israel’s military would be the sole entity ruling over millions of Palestinians—with no exit strategy,” wrote Ami Ayalon, Tamir Pardo and Gadi Shamni, three former top-ranking Israeli commanders.
That’s a reality they may want to avoid for strategic and moral reasons. Annexation “will lead to a cascade of grievous human rights consequences,” said Lynk, who is also a Canadian law professor. “And it will solidify not the creation of a Palestinian state, but the completion of a Palestinian Bantustan, an archipelago of disconnected islands of territory, completely surrounded and divided up by Israel and unconnected to the outside world.”
Faced with rising global anger and scrutiny, Netanyahu could yet pull back, already assured of a discreet political victory. “He wants to get credit for making this an issue and for changing the discourse,” Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer told my colleague Ruth Eglash. “For many years, the conversation was about Israel dismantling settlements and retreating to achieve peace. Now the conversation is about Israel going forward and annexing the settlements. Even if nothing changes on the ground, this might be enough for Netanyahu.”
But other pressures may come to bear, not least the possibility that, after November’s U.S. presidential election, the winds could be blowing in a different direction in Washington. “This may be a political window that will soon close again,” Lynk said. “A full or partial annexation seems more likely than not doing anything.”