[On 17 April 2019, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) hosted a panel of experts to discuss recent developments in Israeli and Palestinian politics. The event was held at the National Press Club and titled “Unpacking Netanyahu’s Reelection: Future Implications.” The speakers were Peter Beinart, Professor of Journalism and Political Science, City University of New York; Phyllis Bennis, Director, New Internationalism Project, Institute for Policy Studies; Nadia Hijab, Co-Founder and Board President, Al-Shabaka, The Palestinian Policy Network; Mouin Rabbani, Co-Editor, Jadaliyya; and Amir Tibon, Washington Correspondent, Haaretz Newspaper. ACW Executive Director Khalil E. Jahshan moderated the discussion. Below are the main points Rabbani presented.]
1. The April 2019 Israeli parliamentary elections consolidated a decisive shift in the Israeli body politic. From 1967 to until roughly 2005, which not coincidentally coincided with the removal of Yasir Arafat and his replacement with Mahmoud Abbas, the fault line within Israel elites in relation to the Palestinian people and the occupied territories was between 1) those who believed Israel’s interests are best served through the indefinite perpetuation of the status quo, better known as creeping annexation, and 2) those who advocated various forms of territorial compromise, primarily with Jordan but later on with the PLO.
2. The 2019 elections demonstrate that the fault line within Israel has moved definitively to the right. It is today between those who advocate an indefinite perpetuation of the status quo, the creeping annexationists, and those promoting formal annexation of parts or all of the occupied territories, let’s call them the leaping annexationists. It is, however, worth noting that, in contrast to the period until 2005, in virtually all cases the Gaza Strip is no longer on the Israeli territorial menu, at least not in the settler-colonial sense.
3. While Netanyahu has, and never had, any intention of relinquishing any occupied territory under any circumstances, and will make no concessions unless compelled to do so by overwhelming political and/or military force, I would characterize him as a creeping/creepy rather than leaping annexationist. This is because unlike most of those to his right, Netanyahu understands that action speaks louder than words. His generally risk-averse character, and fear of the international response, previously led him to avoid openly advocating an annexationist agenda.
4. This changed decisively during the past two years, and the cause of this change is to be found primarily here in Washington. The Trump administration’s open embrace of Israeli extremism pushed the mainstream inexorably towards the right. American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, the Trump administration’s systematic assault on international law and the international consensus as these relate to the Question of Palestine, and most recently its recognition of Israel’s annexation of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, transformed the prospect of annexing the West Bank from a reckless ambition to a realistic opportunity. Netanyahu was of course delighted by these developments, and his government did everything it could to promote them. Indeed, it was Netanyahu who stated, in response to the Golan recognition, that it proves that territory acquired by force need not be relinquished to its legitimate owners. But we should also recognize that in this new geopolitical context, Netanyahu had no choice but to advocate annexation in order to avoid being outflanked by those on his right, who he could no longer dismiss as naïve dilettantes. I for one have for more than a year been warning that under these circumstances Israel’s annexationist agenda was likely to be formalized once its election campaign got underway.
5. We now have a situation in which: 1) The US president is already making support for Israel a cornerstone of his partisan warfare with the Democrats and his upcoming re-election campaign; 2) Key members of Trump’s national security team, and a significant proportion of his base, openly proclaim that Trump was installed in the White House by none other than God in order to serve Israel; 3) US efforts to resolve the Question of Palestine are led by an Inspector Clouseau who fancies himself Detective Poirot, if not the reincarnation of Metternich, and who along with his two aides have for decades been invested in Israel’s settlement project. (You may recall that during his first visit to the White House Netanyahu fondly reminisced about sleeping in Jared Kushner’s bed); 4) Israel’s growing army of annexationists, quite rightly, see the period between the Israeli parliamentary and American presidential elections as a golden opportunity that may not be repeated during their lifetimes.
6. Israel has many annexationist options. It is, at least initially, likely to focus on Area C, which although comprising some 60 percent of the West Bank would leave the great majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip under Palestinian rather than Israeli authority. If Israel indeed proceeds in this direction, it would be difficult, and I would argue politically untenable, for Palestinians to demand more extensive Israeli annexation and Israeli citizenship. There are in any case various other formulas through which Israel can seek to incorporate maximum territory with minimal Arabs.
7. This trajectory would not lead to the termination of the two-state settlement paradigm but rather an Israeli-American attempt to reconfigure it: A Palestinian entity based in the Gaza Strip, potentially incorporating several disjointed self-governing outposts in West Bank Palestinian population centers, and an Israel incorporating most, perhaps all of the West Bank. This would be broadly consistent with what has already been implemented of Plan Kushner, and would help explain Pompeo’s recent refusal to express even the slightest concern at the prospect of annexation.
8. Should this indeed come to pass, it would in many respects form the logical culmination of over half a century of Israeli occupation: mix one measure of creeping annexation, add several helpings of Israeli impunity, and top it off with generous amounts of American indulgence and empty European posturing, and this is precisely what you get. I would similarly argue that Trump’s policies on the Question of Palestine also did not emerge from a vacuum, but rather build on various precedents adopted by Congress and previous administrations.
9. Yet, what do we mean with sweeping statements that Israel’s election results have put paid to the two-state paradigm? To at least this Palestinian ear, it sounds like a clarion call, however inadvertently, for permanent occupation and acquiescence in annexation. Rather, it is precisely at this critical historical juncture that we must hold fast to the international consensus and international law. Given the current desultory state of the Palestinian national movement, Palestinians possess little more than what the late Edward W. Said termed the power of refusal. This means, first and foremost, categorically refusing to lie in the same bed in which Netanyahu slept so comfortably, and refusing to engage in futile efforts to avoid blame for Plan Kushner’s stillbirth. Absent Palestinian consent, it will be virtually impossible for even Israel and America’s closest regional allies to formally engage with their designs.
10. I would conclude with the observation that while this is of course about the Question of Palestine, it is also about much more. The Question of Palestine is being used as a battering ram to dismantle the global order, international institutions, international law, and indeed international treaties like the Iranian nuclear agreement. The appropriate response is to once again internationalize the Question of Palestine by making it the litmus test for the integrity, effectiveness, and arguably very survival of a rules-based international system. The ease or difficulty with which further Palestinian territory will be digested by Israel will be determined by the extent to which those who proclaim themselves guardians of the international order put their money where their mouth is.
11. On a final note relating to politics in this country: the reason the Question of Palestine has been chosen by the Trump administration as the battering ram of choice to dismantle the international order is because support for Israel has in recent decades enjoyed levels of bipartisan support other US allies can only dream of. Yet the negative response to Netanyahu’s re-election by some prominent Democrats who have been traditionally silent when it comes to Palestinian rights is a potentially positive sign. Having said that, change does not self-generate, and will require intensive and extensive effort, both here and abroad.