CAIRO — A succession of Arab leaders and officials have sharply warned Israel against moving forward with a controversial plan to annex Palestinian lands in the Israeli-occupied West Bank as early as this week — an action they say could destabilize the region and undermine peace efforts.
The United Arab Emirates said annexation would imperil Israel’s chances of building stronger ties to Persian Gulf nations. The headline of an opinion piece published in an Israeli newspaper by Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, read: “It’s Either Annexation or Normalization.”
To many Palestinians, the pushback coming from Arab countries is welcome, especially to those who have detected a degree of fatigue and silence from their neighbors in recent years as countries have focused less on the conflict and more on quietly improving ties with Israel.
“I’m definitely pleased they are saying something, because there have been years when they said nothing,” said Diana Buttu, an activist and former negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization now living in Haifa.
But it remains to be seen whether Arab leaders will go beyond mere statements of solidarity for Palestinians and take concrete measures in the event of annexation, Palestinians and regional analysts say. Pressure from the streets to do so could be limited, as Arabs across the region are distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, economic instability, civil wars and other woes.
Additionally, the gradual warming of relations between the Jewish state and its neighbors is based on common goals — containing Iranian expansionism, countering extremist movements — that will probably remain priorities regardless of Israel’s actions in the West Bank.
“I have no faith in the statements they are making,” added Buttu, referring to Arab leaders. “The rapprochement is on the level of governments where their interests are the same.”
The West Bank, which the Jewish state has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war, is home to as many as 3 million Palestinians and roughly 430,000 Israeli Jews living in scores of settlements. The United Nations and most European countries consider the settlements illegal, but Israel and the Trump administration dispute this.
It’s unclear how much land would be annexed, should it happen. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed last year to annex the Jordan Valley, a swath along the West Bank’s boundary with Jordan, as well as areas containing Israeli settlements. This year, Netanyahu said as much as 30 percent could be annexed.
But Israeli media reports have suggested that any takeover could be 5 percent or less of the land, depending on what’s approved by the United States. Annexation is linked to a plan by the Trump administration for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and the Arab condemnations have raised concerns about alienating key U.S. allies in the region.
Such denunciations didn’t occur after other steps recently taken to benefit Israel to Arabs’ detriment. When the United States last year recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, territory seized from Syria in 1967, Arab leaders were critical but took no concrete measures. That was also the case when the Trump administration relocated the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, after recognizing it as Israel’s capital.
“Israel enjoys a less hostile Arab world, a friendlier Arab world and an Arab world that seeks Israel’s help with broader geostrategic interests in the region,” said Amaney Jamal, a Princeton professor and co-founder of the Arab Barometer, which gauges public opinion in the Middle East. “So why is Israel not saying, ‘Let us maintain this new era of ties, friendships and alliances and resolve the Palestinian issue’? It’s in Israel’s strategic interest, but Israel is calculating that it doesn’t need to.”
So far, Jordan has been the most outspoken in its opposition to the annexation plans. With its close ties to the United States and Israel, it’s also the most influential Arab country in changing Israel’s mind, analysts say.
Netanyahu and his loyalists have argued that the response by Arab governments to annexation is likely to be muted because of the interests they share with Israel in security, trade, technology and opposition to Iran.
But Otaiba, the ambassador, said in his opinion piece that “annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with [the United Arab Emirates].”
He added that annexation would “harden Arab views of Israel.” That, analysts said, could trigger populist anger at Arab leaders’ growing rapprochement with Israel.
“If the Palestinians themselves eventually begin to organize, they are likely to draw lots of support from younger Arabs in other countries, who might well challenge their governments’ ties with Israel,” said Michelle Dunne, head of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an email.
Arab leaders, she added, are aware that with Israel’s occupation, “a de facto Israeli annexation of the West Bank” has been ongoing for decades. But hopes for a two-state solution — an independent Palestinian state coexisting with Israel — were always there. Annexation would undermine the legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership and spell the end of a two-state solution, Arab leaders, the United Nations and Western officials say.
“Once it is clear that there is no longer any realistic chance of a viable, sovereign state of Palestine being created, it becomes more difficult for Arab leaders to justify publicly their plans to further develop strategic cooperation with Israel,” Dunne said.
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Many Palestinians, though, remain skeptical about neighboring governments and their intentions.
“I don’t think Israel gives a damn for the Arab position, except Jordan because of the sensitivity of its relations with Israel and the United States,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority. “So whether the Arabs are divided or united, whether they oppose or not oppose, I don’t believe this is one of the major factors Israel will take into consideration when deciding to annex or not.”
Buttu blames Arab diplomats for framing the steady encroachment of Israel into the West Bank as a threat to improving ties and regional stability rather than a violation of basic human rights.
“That’s misguided,” Buttu said. “You don’t oppose it just because it could lead to instability and violence. You oppose it because it’s illegal and it’s wrong for the Palestinian people.”
Buttu said Israel’s de facto annexation will continue even if Israel pulls back from formally extending its control over the settlements.
“On July 2, if [Netanyahu] says, ‘We’re going to hold off,’ is the Arab world going to breathe a sign of relief?” Buttu said. “They shouldn’t, because we know there is going to be more land acquisition.”