The Oslo Accords, and plans proposed by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, called for the evacuation/dismantling of most of the settlements and the retention of less than 10 percent of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). Under the Trump peace plan, however, 30% of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, and all Jewish settlements would become part of Israel. Since the Palestinians have rejected the plan, Israel is preparing to act unilaterally and apply sovereignty to some or all the Jewish communities in the West Bank.
The decision is controversial inside and outside of Israel. According to the coalition agreement, the Knesset can begin considering the application of sovereignty on July 1, 2020, with the caveat that action be taken “in full agreement with the U.S….and in dialogue with the international community.” It is unlikely Israel would act without U.S. agreement, but it will not be constrained by other nations, which Israel knows are opposed to any unilateral measures.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly said he intended to move forward on July 1; however, international opposition, combined with the failure of U.S. and Israeli negotiators to complete a map of the areas both agree can be included in such an action, and an upsurge in cases of the coronavirus resulted in delaying any decision.
Defense Minister (and Netanyahu’s replacement as prime minister under the coalition’s rotation plan) Benny Gantz pledged to annex the Jordan Valley during his election campaign, but has been more reticent to upset Israel’s foreign allies and wants to reach understandings with Arab countries that have ties with Israel, especially Egypt and Jordan. As July 1 approached, Gantz expressed frustration with the Palestinians, “We won’t continue to wait for the Palestinians. If they say ‘no’ forever to everything then we’ll be forced to move forward without them,” he said, intimating he was prepared to support unilateral annexation without specifying a date for taking that step.
Gantz has also said, “We will not apply Israeli law in places in which there are many Palestinians or in cases where we would harm their mobility; if there'll be Palestinian citizens in regions where Israeli law is applied, they will have equal rights.”
Even without Gantz’s support, Netanyahu should have the votes to proceed, however, he is unlikely to risk upsetting the Trump administration, which wants Gantz to agree on the next steps.
In the meantime, the disagreement has created uncertainty about Israel’s plans. I have labeled the options: Maximalist, Max Minus, Middle Road and Minimalist. Before considering those options, it is important to distinguish between occupied and disputed territory to understand why Netanyahu is talking about applying Israeli sovereignty rather than annexing territory.
While most of the world refers to the West Bank as “occupied,” the more accurate description is “disputed” territory. Occupation refers to foreign control of an area that was under the previous sovereignty of another state. In the case of the West Bank, there was no legitimate sovereign because the territory had been illegally occupied by Jordan from 1948 to 1967.
It is also necessary to distinguish the acquisition of territory in a war of conquest with a war of self-defense. A nation that attacks another and then retains the territory it conquers is an occupier. One that gains territory while defending itself is not in the same category. This is the situation with Israel, which informed King Hussein that if Jordan stayed out of the 1967 War, Israel would not fight against him. Hussein ignored the warning and attacked Israel. While fending off the assault, and driving out the invading Jordanian troops, Israel came to control the West Bank.
By rejecting Arab demands that Israel be required to withdraw from all the territories won in 1967, UN Security Council Resolution 242 acknowledged that Israel was entitled to claim at least part of these lands for new defensible borders.
Israel’s international legal claim to the land goes back to the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which recognized the Jewish right to a “national home” in Palestine. This position was reiterated in the San Remo Resolution (April 1920), Treaty of Sevres (Art. 95, Aug. 1920), Mandate for Palestine (Art. 6, July 1922), Anglo-American Treaty (Dec. 1925), and UN Charter (Art. 80, June 1945).
Hence, it is inaccurate to refer to Israel’s plans – as critics do – as annexation. As Erielle Davidson has explained, “A nation cannot annex land over which it already has sovereign claims.”
The most often discussed idea is to apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley or the “consensus” settlements. Although initially the expectation was the focus would be on the Jordan Valley, Netanyahu reportedly may initially only apply sovereignty to the settlement blocs of Ma’ale Adumim (pop. 49,982), Ariel (pop. 62,893) and Gush Etzion (pop. 34,907).
The Palestinians have been willing in the past to accept that the largest Jewish settlements would ultimately be part of Israel, and Israel has made clear it would never evacuate these large communities. Ariel has been more controversial than the other blocs because it is the furthest from the 1949 Armistice Line, extending approximately 12 miles into the West Bank. Nevertheless, Ehud Barak’s proposal at Camp David in 2000 included Ariel among the settlement blocs to be annexed to Israel; the Clinton plan also envisioned incorporating Ariel within the new borders of Israel.
The idea that Israel must retain control over the Jordan Valley for security reasons was laid out soon after the Six-Day War by Yigal Allon and was part of the subsequent peace plan that bore is name. In 1979, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan said, “it is necessary to establish settlements along the whole length of the Jordan Valley. There is no hindrance to this, since the Camp David Accord provides not only that the Israel Army will be the only armed force in Judea and Samaria, but also that the Israel Army will remain permanently along the Jordan.”
Israeli prime ministers have insisted Israel retain the Jordan Valley, including Yitzhak Rabin, who said in his final Knesset speech: “The borders of the State of Israel, during the permanent solution, will be beyond the lines which existed before the Six-Day War. We will not return to the June 4, 1967 lines…. Changes which will include the addition of Gush Etzion, Efrat, Beitar and other communities, most of which are in the area east of what was the ‘Green Line,’ prior to the Six-Day War…. The security border of the State of Israel will be located in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of that term.” Rabin also said beside Israel would be a Palestinian “entity which is less than a state.”
Israel did express a willingness to compromise, however, during peace talks. At the Annapolis Conference in 2008, Prime Minister Olmert asked to maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley for a number of years before it would be transferred to a third party.
Netanyahu also reportedly agreed to a temporary presence in the valley in negotiations with Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014.
The valley is in Area C, which is already under the control of Israel, as agreed to by the Palestinians in the Oslo Accords. There are 27 Jewish settlements there with 9,000 residents. Palestinians live in 10 cities and villages, including Jericho, which have a population of approximately 65,000. Most of the area is undeveloped and sparsely populated.
According to Shaul Arieli, the area is 463 square miles, which is 20.5% of the West Bank’s area. He says that 23% of this area is privately owned Palestinian land, which would probably be expropriated for “public use,” which would only apply to Jewish settlements.
Arieli says that 12 Palestinian villages with 13,500 inhabitants in Area B would also fall under Israeli jurisdiction. These people could be given resident status like Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the opportunity to become citizens. Incorporating this small number of Palestinians will not impact the demographic balance as would be the case if Israel pursued the maximalist plan.
Without a fence to delineate the boundaries between the sovereign area and the rest of the West Bank, the border would be porous and thereby make it easier for terrorist infiltration.
Every Israeli Prime Minister since June 1967 could have declared sovereignty over the entire West Bank; however, none did. This includes right-wing leaders like Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon who advocated “Greater Israel.” One reason they did not act was the fear of international condemnation, especially from the United States. The practical reason, which was perhaps more powerful, was the concern that if Israel incorporated the territories and their Palestinian population, Israel could not remain both a Jewish and democratic state.
That remains a concern today; however, under the Trump plan, the “demographic dilemma” would not be a problem because it allows Israel to ultimately annex all the Jewish communities, while incorporating a minimum number of Palestinians (approximately 100,000 at most), and leaving the Palestinian areas (70% of the West Bank) for a future Palestinian state. Though some Israelis from the far right still advocate “Greater Israel,” the Trump plan now is the maximalist goal of the government.
One argument for pursuing this goal now rather than one of the other strategies is that Israel will be condemned and face negative consequences no matter which it chooses so it might as well take the heat all at once and maximize its gains. That possibility was credence by a report that Netanyahu told settler leaders on June 8, 2020, that he intends to apply sovereignty to all West Bank settlements.
A two-step plan is also being considered. The first step would entail the application of sovereignty to settlements located outside the Jordan Valley and the consensus blocs, roughly 10% of the West Bank, as opposed to the 30% the Trump plan allows for. The logic is that under any future peace agreement, the Jordan Valley and consensus settlements will become part of Israel; the remaining communities, however, are more controversial so it would be advantageous to essentially stake Israel’s claim to them sooner rather than later. The belief is that this would likely delay a confrontation with Jordan and show a willingness to pursue talks with the Palestinians. If, however, the Palestinians refuse to negotiate, Israel will proceed with the second stage and apply sovereignty to the rest of the settlements.
The idea of applying sovereignty to the “consensus” communities in addition to the Jordan Valley would not be a significant change in the status quo. As noted earlier, these settlements blocs are comprised of large populations – a total of 329,000, roughly 70% of all settlers – that would not be evacuated or dismantled under any peace agreement. The Palestinians recognized this reality in prior negotiations.
Adopting this approach would have little impact on the lives of most of the 460,000 Jews in Judea and Samaria. According to U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, about 10,000 to 15,000 settlers who live in the part of Area C reserved for the Palestinians during the four year negotiating period will not be able to expand their communities’ area but can build within them.
The sense of urgency for taking unilateral action quickly is driven by the American political calendar. Ambassador Friedman has said the U.S. will recognize Israel’s sovereignty in areas outlined in the Trump peace plan on the conditions that Israel halt construction in the part of Area C excluded from the plan, that Netanyahu agrees to coordinate Israel’s actions with the United States based on a detailed map a joint U.S.-Israel committee is preparing, that he is willing to negotiate with the Palestinians over the next four years on the basis of the Trump plan, and that he accept the creation of a Palestinian state if the Palestinians meet their obligations.
Proponents of moving ahead see this as a once in a lifetime chance to secure Israel’s hold on the West Bank and to change the parameters for future negotiations. Instead of a starting point of the pre-1967 lines and discussing conceding more than 90% of the West Bank, Israel will now argue it should not withdraw from more than the 70% proposed in the Trump plan. Confident the Palestinians will not fulfill their obligations given their rejection of the plan, Netanyahu has agreed to the conditions for proceeding with the application of sovereignty
Trump’s opponent, Joe Biden, has made clear he opposes Israel taking any unilateral steps and it would be politically risky for Israel to pursue any of the unilateral approaches if he becomes president. Even if Israel does act before November 2020, however, it may face pressure from a Biden administration, the UN and the EU to rescind the decision since they have all said they will not recognize Israeli sovereignty over any part of the West Bank outside of a two-state solution.
Although Netanyahu has had a long, friendly relationship with Biden, he may not want to get off on the wrong foot with a new president by acting against his wishes. Some Democrats are also still upset with Netanyahu’s decision to oppose President Obama’s Iran policy in an address to Congress.
While Biden and some members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have spoken out against unilateral action, it is unlikely Congress would take any punitive steps against Israel. Biden, however, could publicly criticize Israel, abstain or support UN condemnation or sanctions, and/or withhold military assistance. To convince Israel to reverse any decision it makes, a new administration would probably have to be willing to take draconian measures.
Israel will also anger many Americans, including Jews, who want Israel to evacuate the West Bank and agree to a two-state solution. This will exacerbate the schism between American and Israeli Jews. Anti-Israel groups will also be energized (and not just in the United States) and can be expected to intensify their activities on college campuses.
Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute also raises the point that the timing may undermine one of Netanyahu’s most important concerns, the prevention of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. Why, he asks, would Netanyahu “want to distract the world from focusing on Iran precisely when Tehran is breaking every remaining constraint in the 2015 nuclear deal?”
Longtime peace negotiator Dennis Ross believes Netanyahu will go forward with his plan because it is his Ben-Gurion moment. Ben-Gurion, Ross explains, declared Israel’s independence over the opposition of the United States knowing the cost would be high but also recognizing “there might never again be the pretext and justification to do so.” Israel did pay a high price, “but for Ben-Gurion, who was determined to end 2,000 years of Jewish homelessness, the cost of inaction was greater.” Likewise, Netanyahu feels a sense of historical destiny and the opportunity to return Jewish sovereignty to Judea and Samaria.
Satloff said supporters of applying sovereignty put it this way, “Israel is essentially alone in the world; we need to take our destiny in our own hands…We know there will be turbulence at the beginning, perhaps for a month or two, but we can withstand it. The time to act is now.”
Prior to Israel taking any action, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared that the Palestinians would no longer adhere to the Oslo agreements, would cease security coordination with Israel and may declare a Palestinian state. He also has threatened, as has many times before, to disband the PA.
The difficulty for Abbas and the Palestinians is that they reap many benefits from the agreements (e.g., water sharing) and security cooperation. The existence of the PA gives Abbas and other officials power and authority they would not otherwise possess. This has allowed them to control their population and enrich themselves. Despite most Palestinians wanting him to resign, Abbas has clung to power for 15 years (for a four-year term) by preventing elections from being held. Will he now voluntarily give up his dictatorial rule? Moreover, without Israel’s help, Abbas and his regime would be in danger of being ousted or killed by Hamas.
Palestinians have suggested disbanding the PA would teach Israel a lesson. Israel has no interest in controlling the Palestinian population after Oslo put 98% of them under the PA’s control; however, Israel survived responsibility for the territories for 25 years and could do so again.
Following Abbas’s decision to cease cooperation with Israel, Palestinians have already begun to suffer. For example, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of sick Palestinians were unable to receive medical treatment in Israel.
The more serious threat to Israel is the possibility of a new Palestinian uprising in response to what will be seen as a land grab and the possible end to any hope for independence. The Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Maj.-Gen. Kamil Abu Rukun, warned that Israel could face a “shattering of security coordination and a wave of violence and terrorist attacks” with the possibility of Palestinian security officers using their weapons against Israel. The PA, however, has reportedly informed Israel it will prevent violence against Israelis. Given its incitement to violence, and inability to stop terrorist attacks, Israelis are unlikely to feel reassured.
In a worst-case scenario, Israel could be forced to reoccupy the entire West Bank and, possibly Gaza. This would only make the situation for the Palestinians worse and make any dream of independence even more remote. Israel would be in the same position it was in prior to the Oslo agreements, with responsibility for both the safety and welfare of the Palestinian population while defending its own citizens against the prospect of years of low-intensity warfare.
The Palestinians may react more rationally than emotionally, however, and eschew violence because of the negative consequences. Today, the West Bank is relatively peaceful and that has allowed Israel to loosen some of its security restrictions. The Palestinian economy has improved and roughly 150,000 Palestinians are earning a living working for Israelis on both sides of the Green Line. An uprising would lead Israel to prevent those workers from entering Israel, reestablish checkpoints and use force to protect its citizens, which will inevitably result in Palestinian casualties. Similarly, Palestinians in Gaza who will be unaffected by Israel’s actions have nothing to gain by escalating violence against Israel as it would only provoke a military response that would make their situation worse.
If there is an uprising Israel will also pay a price. Terrorism may increase and result in the loss of civilian lives while the application of military force to restore order will result in IDF casualties.
One sign that the Palestinian people may not be willing to risk their lives or welfare by resorting to violence has been the failure of their leaders to mobilize opposition to Israel’s plans. When they tried to organize a demonstration in Ramallah on June 8, 2020, for example, only about 200 people showed up.
Jack Khoury reported, “The crisis of confidence between the leadership and the public has deepened so much that the public can no longer back its leadership. The masses will not take to the streets over Israel but would over the economic crisis.” He added, “Under President Abbas' leadership, the Palestinian public is not interested in returning to the days of the intifada, and nonviolent struggle is also far removed from reality. Fatah would have a hard time mobilizing support for protests.”
The leaders may understand the mood of the public. “We’re not calling for a third intifada,” a senior PA official told The Jerusalem Post. “We are just warning that Israel’s actions and measures could lead to a new intifada and destabilize security in the region.” The official said they were encouraging “peaceful and popular resistance” and discouraging “armed attacks that would play into the hands of the Israeli government and the Israeli right-wing parties.”
The UN General Assembly routinely condemns Israel so it was not surprising the institution claims unilateral annexation is a violation of international law and the UN’s special coordinator for Middle East peace Nickolay Mladenov has called it a “destructive unilateral action that cements division and may put peace beyond reach in our lifetime.”
Israel pays little attention to the UN, which it views as historically biased and irredeemably anti-Israel. The UN has never taken action against Israel and is unlikely to do so now given a likely U.S. veto in the Security Council where sanctions must be approved.
Some members of the EU have threatened a harsh reaction and reportedly discussed denying Israel membership in trade agreements, special grants, or cooperative ventures in various fields. A proposal to publish a statement warning Israel not to execute its plan was blocked by Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Austria. It is likely economic sanctions would also be vetoed, though individual countries may be willing to impose their own measures. The Europeans have an incentive not to punish Israel because it would alienate the Israelis and ensure the EU has no role in future negotiations. It could also adversely impact their economies as Israel is an important trade partner. Unless it adopts severe economic sanctions, the EU probably will be ignored.
Richard Goldberg noted that European sanctions could run afoul of U.S. anti-boycott laws. Thirty-two states have adopted laws, executive orders, or resolutions against boycotting Israel. He said the “potential financial impact of divestment by U.S. states on European businesses and economies is substantial.” He added that the “Trump administration could raise the ante by issuing an executive order threatening a menu of sanctions against foreign firms that boycott Israel—as an economic security umbrella to defend one of the closest U.S. allies.”
According to Ariel Kahana, it is more likely the EU will “issue a harshly-worded response that will accuse Israel of violating international law, and it is possible that policies of labeling products that originate from Judea and Samaria will be enforced more strictly than they have to date.” Sources told him “the EU might pass a resolution not to upgrade its ties with Israel, a step that has been frozen for decades already” and “that several EU nations would unilaterally recognize the existence of a Palestinian state.”
Israel is also not worried about the inevitable charges that it is violating international law. As an Israeli told Satloff, Israel already has lost in the court of international law so “the only solution for us is to take our future into our own hands.”
Still, Israel could not completely ignore concerns expressed by some of their European friends. For example, on July 6, 2020, British Prime Boris Johnson spoke to Netanyahu. Afterward, his office released a statement, saying: “The Prime Minister set out his concerns about plans to annex parts of the West Bank unilaterally and cautioned that this would set back the prospects for peace in the region. He reiterated his personal support for Israel and urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to return to negotiations with the Palestinians.”
On July 10, 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Netanyahu and asked him not to proceed with “annexation.” He warned doing so would be a breach of international law and compromise the possibility of a two-state solution and a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He received a similar warning on June 25, 2020 from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
After the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there, dire predictions were made about a violent reaction from the Palestinians and the Muslim world. Some Arab leaders made perfunctory statements objecting to the decision, but that was the extent of the uproar. The Middle East did not erupt in flames and Muslims who were not already enemies of the United States were not moved to attack American interests. One reason was that they understood nothing had significantly changed since Israel already controlled the city.
The same could be true following the application of sovereignty in the West Bank. The Arab/Muslim world may see this as simply an acknowledgment of the facts on the ground.
Some analysts have suggested the Gulf states are likely to cease their quiet cooperation with Israel and halt the gradual steps some have taken toward normalizing relations. The United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, took the unprecedented step of writing in Israel’s most popular newspaper an article headlined, “It’s Either Annexation or Normalization,” expressing his country’s opposition to Israel’s plan. “Annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with U.A.E.,” he said.
Nevertheless, a few days later, two private companies in the UAE signed an agreement with two Israeli companies to develop research and technology to combat COVID-19. Due to the sensitivity of the timing of the deal, Emirati officials did not confirm a broader agreement for cooperation by the health ministries in each country that Netanyahu had announced earlier.
This is not necessarily a reason for Israel not to act. First, the Gulf states have improved ties with Israel primarily because of a mutual interest in fighting the threat posed by Iran. That imperative may outweigh any pressure they feel to show unity with the Palestinians to satisfy their publics. They may also be disinclined to react because they no longer view the Palestinian issue as a priority. An Israeli supporter of acting now told Satloff that Israel’s Arab friends favored moving ahead because it would end the territorial dispute with the Palestinians and “with that issue off the table, we will both – Israel and Arab states – be liberated to deepen our relations.”
Even if the Gulf Arabs were to return to a more hostile posture toward Israel, they do not pose a threat and Israel has prospered for decades without normal relations with them. It is also possible that ties will quietly improve again once the initial uproar over Israel’s actions subsides.
Another possible danger is the reaction of terrorist groups. For example, on July 7, 2020, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said: “We stand by our Palestinian brothers as a state and as a people, and are ready to do anything against this plot, the consequences of which are extremely dangerous for Lebanon.”
It is unlikely, however, Hezbollah would risk taking any action that would provoke an Israeli reponse over an issue that, despite Nasrallah’s rhetoric, would have no impact on Lebanon.
A more specific concern is for the impact on Jordan of Israel’s application of sovereignty to the Jordan Valley. Chief of Staff, Gadi Eisenkot said, “The Israeli interest is to safeguard the peace agreement, to strengthen it, and avoid unilateral steps that could endanger it. As opposed to others, I don’t think the king will cancel this agreement if there is annexation, but I don’t think that should be tested. The relations with Jordan should be strengthened.”
Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead, former director of Policy and Political-Military Affairs at the Ministry of Defense, explained, “Everyone wants to use Jordan to attack Israel – Iran, the Islamic State – but why aren’t they successful? Because of our unique security cooperation, with the pillar being the peace treaty.” He added, Israel’s proposed action “would undermine the Jordanian government in the eyes of its population, opening the door for Iran and their proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, to finally get their foot into the strategic area. Why would Israel risk its national security with such brash and irrational political decisions?”
Eisenkot and Gilead are justly concerned since King Abdullah has said the Israeli plan would jeopardize Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel and could destabilize his regime. Jordan is a vulnerable state economically and militarily, which has been further weakened by the influx of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and the coronavirus pandemic. The king also must worry that the majority of the population that is Palestinian might seek to oust him if he does not oppose Israel changing the status of the valley. The king’s fate is of concern to Israel, primarily because of the possibility that he could be replaced by a radical Muslim ruler who would pose a new and serious threat to Israel.
Rob Satloff argues that the king’s main concern is not the Palestinian population, it is the “East Bank tribal elite, whose members fill the ranks of the army, security services, and influential government ministries.” These loyal subjects fear “Israel implementing their doomsday scenario of transforming Jordan into…an alternative homeland for Palestinians” and Satloff says, “they might take out their anger on the Hashemite ruler who let this calamity happen on his watch.”
The king said, “The law of strength should not apply in the Middle East” but that belief has only been applied to Israel and not any of the Arab states, including Jordan where Abdullah rules by virtue of his ability to suppress dissent. Abdullah has little incentive to annul the peace treaty or do more than condemn Israel. He knows that his grip on power is tenuous and depends to a large extent on support from Israel and the United States.
Jordan, Prof. Dan Schueftan argues, needs Israel to control the Jordan Valley, whether it declares sovereignty there or not because the Jordanians consider the Palestinians an existential threat. “Israeli control prevents Hamas from taking over the West Bank, and the Israeli buffer in the Jordan Valley prevents uncontrolled contact between the Palestinians and Jordan.” He adds the Palestinians must be denied sovereignty over the area to prevent them “from receiving foreign aid – from Iran, Turkey, Shiite militias, ISIS – and rocket fire from their territory,” and posing a threat to air and cyberspace.
Jordan receives about $1.5 billion annually from the United States and can ill afford to alienate President Trump. Members of Congress are currently angry with the king because of his refusal to extradite a woman who was involved in a suicide bomb attack in Jerusalem that killed 15 people, including two Americans.
Mixed messages have been coming out of the kingdom. Abdullah is reportedly lobbying members of Congress and world leaders to oppose any Israeli actions. Meanwhile, a senior official told Israel Hayom, “The Palestinian interest is obviously important to us, but what’s more acute from our perspective is Jordan's national and security interest. The ideological link between the West Bank and Jordan is inseparable, but any framework that will keep the Palestinians in the West Bank and not create a geographical connection between the independent Palestinian state and the Hashemite Kingdom – is acceptable to us.”
The king can revoke the treaty with Israel, but he would do so without Israel committing any act of aggression against the kingdom or violating the terms of the agreement to justify the action. Ambassador Alan Baker notes he would lose the benefits of water allocations, economic relations, and civil aviation and rights of overflight. The king would also risk losing the one thing he cares about most related to Israel, his role as the custodian of the Muslim holy places on the Temple Mount. He would also jeopardize his credibility for keeping agreements and discourage Israelis from trusting Arab leaders.
Abdullah may still feel the need to take some action to mollify his public, the majority of which is Palestinian, but, short of annulling the peace treaty, the king has limited options beyond voicing his displeasure. It is possible he could stop sharing intelligence (though he would lose more by doing so), deny Israel the right to overfly Jordan for attacks on Syria, and cancel a deal to import natural gas from Israel. Reports suggest Netanyahu does not want to risk aggravating relations with Jordan and may delay applying sovereignty to the Jordan Valley.
American Jews, including mainstream organizations, expressed concern if not outright opposition to Israel taking unilateral action in the disputed territory. Left-leaning organizations were outraged, largely out of the belief it would end hope for a two-state solution, and some falsely claimed Palestinians would be denied democratic rights despite Gantz’s statement that Palestinians would have equal rights.”
J Street, for example, criticized the plan and worked to rally members of Congress to oppose it. “As pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans, we believe that annexation would severely imperil Israel’s future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people, along with the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
More than 130 American Jewish leaders wrote to Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi objecting to “Israel unilaterally annexing West Bank territory and applying sovereignty to Jewish settlements, whether according to the parameters of the Trump plan or any other similar proposal, at any point in time.” The message warned of a “rupture inside Congress” and the alienation of American Jews from Israel.
The centrist view is reflected by Nancy Kaufman, former CEO of the mainstream National Council of Jewish Women and executive director of the JCRC in Boston. She wrote, “A diverse cross-section of the American Jewish community is speaking out precisely because we know that Netanyahu’s annexation plan is religiously, ethically and legally wrong, and nothing short of a disaster for Israel’s future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people. We have an obligation to speak out when Israel’s founding values are threatened.”
The mainstream American Jewish Committee (AJC) took the more establishment approach of leaving it to Israel to decide issues of war and peace: “It is not for the ardent friends and supporters of Israel, comfortable in our homes thousands of miles away, to tell the democratically elected Israeli government what to do.” Jason Isaacson, the AJC’s Chief Policy and Political Affairs Officer, acknowledged that “annexation, should it come, will exact a price” but said, “AJC will do what it has always done: explain Israel to the wider world.”
More surprising was the attitude of AIPAC, which supports a two-state solution and does not take a position on settlements, but recognized the disapproval of the sovereignty plan on Capitol Hill. A donor told the JTA, “We are telling the senators ‘feel free to criticize annexation, but don’t cut off aid to Israel.’” AIPAC’s spokesman said, “AIPAC does not encourage members of Congress to criticize the government of Israel,” but reporter Ron Kampeas noted, “Telling lawmakers that they were free to criticize Israel, while short of encouraging them to do so, was nonetheless a departure from past practice.”
Israel’s plan to apply sovereignty to the West Bank provoked a large number of Democrats to send letters expressing their dismay to the Israeli government. On May 21, 2020, 19 Democratic senators (out of 45 – 42%), mostly critics of Israel, warned Israeli leaders against unilaterally “annexing” portions of the West Bank. An earlier harsher draft that said if Israel went ahead, bipartisan congressional support for Israel would be threatened. That draft was only signed by seven members. The final letter says “unilateral annexation puts both Israel’s security and democracy at risk” and expresses opposition to that action.
In the House, 191 Democrats (out of 232 – 82%), including many of Israel’s most ardent defenders, sent a letter on June 25, 2020, to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi warning of negative consequences, expressing support for a two-state solution and urging the government to reconsider its plans.
House Republicans wrote their own letter to Netanyahu expressing support for the Trump peace plan and Israel’s right to make decisions “independent of outside pressure.” That letter was signed by 116 members (out of 198 – 59%).
Dissatisfaction among Democrats over Israel’s sovereignty plan was reflected in efforts by a small number who sought to condition or cut aid to Israel. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) introduced an amendment to the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to bar the use of funds to “deploy or support the deployment of United States defense articles, services or training to territories in the West Bank unilaterally annexed by Israel after July 1, 2020, or to facilitate the unilateral annexation of such territories.”
J Street and Americans for Peace Now were among the groups supporting the amendment, which did not go as far as some critics of Israel wanted, as it did not reduce the total aid package. Nevertheless, AIPAC told its members Israel would be endangered, “An amendment in the Senate restricts where Israel can place lifesaving missile defense systems like Iron Dome.”
In the House, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez circulated a letter with more severe conditions supported by a number of anti-Israel organizations that also provoked the wrath of AIPAC and pro-Israel advocates. She warned if Israel went ahead with its plan, “we will work to ensure non-recognition of annexed territories as well as pursue legislation that conditions the $3.8 billion in U.S. military funding to Israel to ensure that U.S. taxpayers are not supporting annexation in any way.” She said the legislation would “include human rights conditions and the withholding of funds for the offshore procurement of Israeli weapons equal to or exceeding the amount the Israeli government spends annually to fund settlements, as well as the policies and practices that sustain and enable them.” She also made the incendiary charge that Israel’s action “would lay the ground work for Israel becoming an apartheid state.”
AIPAC tweeted, the letter “explicitly threatens the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that would damage American interests, risk the security of Israel & make a two-state solution less likely.”
Support for extending Israeli sovereignty has broad support. In Israel’s last election, the leaders of the two leading parties, Netanyahu of Likud and Gantz of Blue & White, called for “annexation” of the settlements. Now that they are part of the government, their supporters expect them to fulfill their pledges.
The public understands at least one of the possible consequences, with 58% agreeing that it could lead to a third Intifada. Nevertheless, the Israeli Voice Index for May 2020 found that 50% of the public supports applying Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, 25% of Israelis support such a move with the U.S. administration’s support, and an additional 25% would support it even without American backing. Just 31% of Israelis oppose extending sovereignty.
Many prominent Israelis, including former high-ranking military and intelligence officials, have expressed opposition to any unilateral actions by their government. Some critics insist the act is merely symbolic and that Israel risks all the negative consequences and has little to gain since Israel is “enjoying the best era of security” and already has control over the areas under discussion. As Dennis Ross put it, “If I am wrong, Israel will still control the territory and lose nothing. If Netanyahu is wrong, Israel stands to lose a great deal.”
The same could be said, however, for the Palestinians or the Jordanians. If they do more than rhetorically condemn Israel, they are likely to suffer harmful consequences. They have lived with Israeli control over those territories for 53 years and changing their designation should make no difference except for the small number of Palestinians in the Jordan Valley who could benefit by having the opportunity to become Israeli residents. Furthermore, the Jordan Valley and the consensus settlements would not be part of a Palestinian state under any circumstances.
From proponents’ perspective, applying sovereignty is a way to solidify Israel’s hold on the territories and send a message that they are no longer subject to negotiation. If the Palestinians are interested in a state, for now they would have to accept the terms of the Trump plan.
On the other hand, Israel has steadily increased its hold over the West Bank as the Jewish population has grown from just 5,000 at the time Israel signed its peace treaty with Egypt to more than 460,000 today. This has occurred despite widespread condemnation and would likely continue without applying sovereignty. The goal of preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state may have already been accomplished, and the Palestinians’ situation will only grow worse if they refuse to negotiate, so it may be argued that Israel is needlessly risking negative consequences.
Netanyahu’s acceptance of the Palestinian state envisioned in the plan has angered some Israelis on the far right and leaders of the settlement movement who favor annexation of the entire West Bank. They oppose the creation of a Palestinian state because of the potential threat it poses to Israeli security, even with the protections provided in the Trump plan. They also object to the plan’s creation of enclaves where 19 settlements with a population of roughly 20,000 would be surrounded by the Palestinian state. Despite their opposition, and prominence within Netanyahu’s political base, their objections are likely to be ignored.
Opponents of Israel going ahead with its plans insist it would put an end to the peace process and make a two-state solution more difficult, if not impossible. The rebuttal is that there is no peace process. The Palestinians rejected the Trump plan and did not accept Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative that would have been more favorable to them. In fact, Abbas refused to negotiate with Netanyahu for the duration of President Obama’s term and has not had face-to-face talks with an Israeli leader since 2008. Still, critics argue that Israel should not act unilaterally and must instead negotiate any changes in the status quo. Israel would be acting, however, within the context of the Trump peace plan, which does offer the Palestinians a state if they fulfill their obligations.
Proponents of the two-state solution have an entirely different arrangement in mind; however, based on past negotiations which envisioned Israel withdrawing from more than 90% of the West Bank, evacuating most settlements and dividing Jerusalem. That vision, however, may be moot considering the realities on the ground and the shift in Israeli public opinion following the disengagement from Gaza.
Today, more than 460,000 Jews (700,000 if you count East Jerusalem as two-state proponents typically do) live in 131 communities in the West Bank. Nearly 30% live outside the “consensus” blocs, which means that Israel would be expected to evacuate/dismantle 93 settlements and roughly 140,000 people. This is highly unlikely, especially given the wrenching experience of removing 9,000 from the Gaza Strip. Instead of peace, the end of the “occupation” of Gaza has resulted in more than 15 years of violence which made Israelis doubt that territorial concessions in the West Bank will bring an end to the conflict. They fear the West Bank will turn into “Hamastan” more than the risks of continuing to administer the area.
Although less likely, it is possible Israel’s actions will be a stimulus to peace. The Palestinians have believed for decades that a state will be delivered to them without their need to compromise. From the UN announcement of partition until the defeat of Egypt and Syria in the 1973 War, Palestinians hoped the Arab states would drive the Jews into the sea. Even when Jordan captured East Jerusalem and held the West Bank, and Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip, they were not given independence. After 1973, and Israel signing peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, the hope for an Arab victory disappeared.
The Palestinians tried to achieve a victory on their own through decades of terrorism and, even as they continue to engage in “resistance,” they know Israel is too strong to be defeated. The have subsequently placed their hopes on the international community forcing Israel to capitulate to their demands. They promote, for example, a boycott and specious comparison between Israel and South Africa, expecting a global campaign to put an end to the “Zionist regime” as it did the Afrikaner government in Pretoria. While the Palestinians succeeded in winning recognition by some countries and the UN for “Palestine,” and can count on routine condemnation of Israel at the UN General Assembly, they know that the United States will prevent the imposition of international sanctions. Moreover, despite sympathy for the Palestinian cause, the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement has failed to win the support of the international community or to change Israeli policy.
If the Palestinian see that nothing is done after Israel applies sovereignty to some or all of the West Bank, they may recognize that their only hope for improving their situation is negotiations, if not on Trump’s terms, on Biden’s.
If the Palestinians resort to violence in response to Israel’s actions, this will only reinforce Israelis’ belief that a Palestinian state in the West Bank will threaten their security. If the Palestinians walk away from the Oslo agreements, as they have threatened, they will demonstrate they cannot be trusted to adhere to any future arrangements.
The Palestinians may argue Israel will violate the Oslo Accords, as Israeli negotiator Joel Singer has said, if the government takes unilateral action in the West Bank. Israelis would argue, however, the Palestinians have been violating the Oslo agreements by their incitement and terrorism almost from the day they were signed, and now are saying they may declare an independent Palestinian state, which Singer says would also violate the accords.
Since Israel holds the territory the Palestinians want, it is the Palestinians who must demonstrate their fidelity to agreements if they expect concessions and Israeli adherence to a future deal. Abbas’s unwillingness to negotiate with Netanyahu has prevented the Palestinians from advancing their cause for the last 12 years. If Trump were to be reelected, that period would likely be extended another four years.
As it is, due to their failure to adhere to the Oslo Accords, or to agree to Israeli peace offers in 2000 and 2008, the Israeli settlement population has grown from 123,000 before the 1993 signing of the Declaration of Principles to more than 460,000 today. That number will only grow with each year the Palestinians refuse to compromise and, after Israel applies sovereignty to some or all the settlements, the area for a possible state will continue to shrink.
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Jordan Valley Annexation map courtesy of Shaul Arieli.