[Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu repeatedly proclaimed his determination to commence with the formal annexation of West Bank territory on 1 July 2020. Yet the appointed day came and went without an Israeli declaration announcing a change in policy towards the occupied Palestinian territories. In this interview, Jadaliyya Co-Editor Mouin Rabbani examines the background and consequences of Israel’s push towards annexation.]
Jadaliyya (J): What is the background to the current discussion of Israeli annexation of West Bank territory?
Mouin Rabbani (MR): Israeli annexation of occupied Arab territory, meaning the formal and full incorporation of foreign territory by the Israeli state, and its rejection of any legal or institutional distinction between such territory and territory already under Israeli sovereignty, has a long pedigree.
The process arguably commenced during the 1948 Palestine War. Between 1947 and 1949, Zionist militias and, after 15 May 1948, the Israeli military, conquered extensive territories that, pursuant to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 of 29 November 1947 recommending the partition of Palestine, had been allotted to either the Arab state or zone of international administration (corpus separatum). As these territories came under the control of the nascent Israeli state, they were immediately and fully incorporated by it. If you lay a map of the boundaries resulting from the Palestine War over one of the borders endorsed by the United Nations in 1947, you will find that somewhere between a quarter and a third of the territory of pre-1967 Israel, what is often referred to as “Israel proper” even though there is nothing proper about it, consists of territory that lies beyond the UN partition borders. This is not often commented upon because, with the exception of the international community’s refusal to recognize Israeli sovereignty over West Jerusalem to this day, the world basically acted as if nothing happened.
Looking more specifically at the Arab territories Israel occupied in June 1967, Israel commenced with acts of annexation immediately after the conclusion of hostilities. That same month it disbanded the municipal council of East Jerusalem, deported its mayor, Ruhi al-Khatib, and incorporated the city and its environs into the Israeli municipality of (West) Jerusalem. Israel additionally annexed areas of the West Bank abutting the Green Line, the boundary established between Israel and the West Bank by the 1949 Rhodes Armistice Agreement. Most prominent in this category was the Latrun region northwest of Jerusalem, in which three Palestinian villages, Beit Nuba, Imwas, and Yalu were razed to the ground and their inhabitants collectively expelled to Ramallah, where many continue to live in Qaddura Refugee Camp. Much of this area is currently known as Canada Park, because a park funded by donations from the Canadian Jewish community was established over the ruins.
The territories annexed by Israel in 1967 and their remaining Palestinian inhabitants became subject to the “laws, jurisdiction and administration” that govern territory within the Israeli state rather than those prevailing in the rest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which were ruled by military governments established under the authority of the Ministry of Defence and staffed by military officers.
Israel amplified its annexationist agenda in 1980 with the passage of the Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel. The latter was in 2000 amended to prohibit either the Israeli government or Jerusalem municipality from ceding any of their respective authorities to any foreign entity on a temporary or permanent basis. Israel’s parliament in 1981 passed similar legislation with respect to the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.
Although Israel’s acts of annexation since 1967 have in contrast to those of the late 1940s drawn considerable international censure and condemnation, it has in practice faced no meaningful consequences for its conduct. While states that maintained embassies in Jerusalem in 1980 relocated them to Tel Aviv in compliance with UN Security Council resolution 478, one would be hard-pressed to identify additional concrete measures before or since to hold Israel accountable for its actions. Over time, most governments in practice accepted Israel’s annexations as an indefinite de facto reality. This helped Israel consolidate its incorporation of such territories, and furthered the conviction among a growing number of Israelis that their government can pursue additional acts of expansion, what are commonly known as faits accomplis or facts on the ground, with impunity.
The annexation of West Bank territory currently being promoted by Israel and the United States is thus neither unprecedented nor a deviation from the overall tenor of Israeli policy since 1967. It is in fact best understood as the logical culmination of more than half a century of gradual but persistent Israeli colonial expansion throughout the occupied territories, a process that has for decades been characterized as creeping annexation.
On this basis, some have referred to the current situation as a transition from creeping to leaping annexation. Seen from this perspective, the current discussion is not so much about whether or not Israel will annex additional West Bank territory, but rather about whether Israel will adopt legislation to formalize the de facto realities it has established in the West Bank since 1967.
The historical record unambiguously demonstrates that Israel never had the intention of relinquishing control of the West Bank or of accepting diplomatic initiatives that would require it to do so. The record similarly establishes that Israel has consistently pursued policies, primarily but by no means limited to settlement expansion, that facilitate the West Bank’s permanent incorporation into Israel and are designed to impede the prospect for an Israeli withdrawal. Simply stated, the Zionist movement has virtually since its inception in the late nineteenth century considered the West Bank an integral and indivisible component of Eretz Israel (“The Land of Israel”), and the Israeli state has during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries consistently acted to make this a reality.
The historical record similarly demonstrates that the United States, despite any reservations it may have had about specific Israeli policies in the occupied Arab territories, has for more than half a century, and virtually without fail, enabled successive Israeli governments to implement an agenda of creeping annexation, and consistently worked to ensure that Israel could act with impunity and without consequence or accountability for its actions.
Against this background, the Trump administration, acting in close coordination with Israel and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in particular, put US policy on steroids. During 2017-2018 Washington, in part availing itself of longstanding US congressional legislation, among other initiatives recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (and thus Israeli sovereignty over the Holy City); relocated the US embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; recognized Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights; terminated US funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and called for the agency’s abolition and the redefinition of Palestinian refugees so that they and the Palestinian refugee question effectively cease to exist; ordered the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission to the United States and expelled its diplomats; ordered US agencies such as the State Department to cease referring to the West Bank and Gaza Strip as occupied territory; proclaimed that Jewish settlements in the occupied territories do not violate international law and that Israel had the right to annex West Bank territory; terminated USAID programs in the occupied Palestinian territories; and closed the US consulate in East Jerusalem that had functioned as an unofficial embassy to the Palestinians and which reported directly to the US State Department. The State Department instead established a Palestinian Affairs Unit within the US embassy to Israel that operated under the authority, and reports directly to, the US envoy to Israel. In doing so Washington formally relegated US-Palestinian relations to a subordinate component of its bilateral relationship with Israel.
The above measures were all implemented before the January 2020 release of the Trump initiative, Peace to Prosperity, which called upon Israel to annex some forty percent of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley and every Jewish settlement, and additionally proposed that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel be transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction and thus administratively expelled from the Jewish state. Against this background, it is worth repeating that the current Israeli and US calls for formal annexation of occupied Palestinian territory are best understood as the logical culmination rather than a deviation from policies that date to at least 1967.
It should also be noted that while annexationists have been embedded within the Israeli political spectrum since 1967, they have until recently primarily been an ideological caucus rather than a potent political force. Until approximately 2000, the primary distinction in Israel with respect to the occupied Palestinian territories was between those who believed Israel’s interests are best served by the indefinite perpetuation of the status quo as a framework for creeping annexation, and those who promoted the concept of a formal peace agreement, previously with Jordan and more recently the PLO, in order to permanently secure Israel’s position. As Israeli politics and society have shifted ever rightward the current division is between advocates of the status quo and those who promote formal annexation. In this context, the Trump administration’s official endorsement of annexation and support for its speedy consummation has significantly strengthened and enabled Israel’s annexationists, and effectively resolved the debate in their favor.
J: What was the significance of 1 July for the annexation of Palestinian territory?
MR: Although previous US administrations have explicitly endorsed and even advocated for Israeli annexation of occupied Palestinian territory, particularly those regions that constitute the main settlement blocs and abut the Green Line, Washington has on the whole conditioned formal support for measures on the finalization of an Israeli-Palestinian treaty, Palestinian acquiescence, and broader international endorsement.
Previous US administrations not only believed that an Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic settlement would serve US strategic interests in the Middle East, but were also concerned that Israeli acts of unilateral annexation constitute such indefensibly brazen violations of the international rulebook that it could lead to renewed Israeli-Palestinian conflict, produce broader instability in the Middle East that might undermine Arab client regimes, and embarrass the US internationally while providing political advantage to its adversaries. The 2000 Clinton Parameters, the 2004 Bush letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and former Secretary of State John Kerry’s 2016 speech summarizing his failed efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace provide good examples of annexation measures Washington was prepared to support and the conditions under which it would support them.
The Trump administration departs from its predecessors, or more accurately takes their policies to the next level, by being the first to openly announce that Israel has the right to unilaterally annex as much Palestinian territory as it sees fit, particularly if the PLO refuses to engage with the Trump initiative, which is, of course, something no Palestinian in their right mind would or could or should ever contemplate. In the words of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, annexation is an “Israeli decision” and not something over which the Palestinians need be consulted.
Even before the Trump initiative was released in January 2020, it was broadly assumed that the period between the conclusion of Israel’s parliamentary elections and the November 2020 US presidential elections formed Israel’s best window of opportunity to proceed with annexation. This was because, on the one hand, Netanyahu would be further incentivized to pursue annexation in order to consolidate a parliamentary majority and thus continue to lead the Israeli government. At the same time, not only would Trump during this period still be in office, but his need to retain the support of core constituencies during the election campaign would encourage him to overcome any hesitancy regarding annexation that might exist within the ranks of his administration or the foreign policy and defence bureaucracies. These core constituencies include Zionist extremists like the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), and the Adelsons, who contribute massive amounts of campaign funds; radical Christian fundamentalists like Christians United for Israel (CUFI), who contribute a very substantial proportion of Republican votes; and American nationalists for whom Israeli supremacy in the Middle East and global Islamophobia are important policy principles.
The release date of the Trump initiative was in fact significantly influenced by US as well Israeli electoral considerations. For Trump it is an election year, which suggests he would have probably preferred to announce his contribution to Greater Israel somewhat later in the campaign cycle. As for Netanyahu, after Israel’s inconclusive April 2019 and September 2019 parliamentary elections, and the certainty that a third round would be required, his acolytes in the White House pushed for publication to help him clear the electoral hurdle. They were partially vindicated in March 2020; although Netanyahu once again failed to secure a majority for either his party or the rightist bloc, he was in contrast to the previous two rounds in a position to form a broad coalition incorporating elements of the largest rival party, ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious parties, remnants of the Labour Party, and a smattering of other rightists, thus preserving his position as premier. This was for Netanyahu a crucial achievement, because he otherwise faced the prospect of conviction and prison resulting from several corruption indictments.
Pursuant to the coalition agreement signed by the parties to Israel’s new government, which took office in May 2020, either Netanyahu or a parliamentarian from his Likud Party may, as of 1 July 2020, submit a proposal for territorial annexation for ratification by either the government or parliament. The agreement further stipulates that if such a proposal is formulated on the basis of an agreement with the United States and obtains a requisite majority, it cannot be vetoed by Netanyahu’s main coalition partner, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.
The thinking behind this convoluted construction is that it would be in Israel’s interest to pursue annexation in coordination with Washington and share responsibility with the White House for its actions. Secondly, if Gantz and his followers prove averse to the unilateral nature of annexation because of their preference for broader regional and international coordination, Netanyahu can still muster a majority in parliament by recruiting the support of far-right parties that have been vociferously demanding annexation but are not currently in government.
It is for this reason that it was widely expected that Israel would on 1 July immediately commence with the annexation of additional West Bank territory. Netanyahu, who appeared to have painted himself into a corner, indicated that on the appointed date he planned to annex not only all West Bank settlements and colonial outposts, but the entire Jordan Valley and territory west of the separation wall as well. The maximalist option was also promoted by US ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Others suggested that Israel, true to form, would proceed more gradually and carefully, annexing perhaps a small number of settlements in order to establish a precedent and gauge international reaction before deciding if and how to proceed further.
It is worth noting that Israel never intended to annex the entire West Bank, at least not at this stage. For Israel, the strategic objective is one of maximum territory with minimum Arabs, and it, therefore, with the notable exception of East Jerusalem, has no interest in claiming sovereignty over significant Palestinian population centers. In this respect the Jordan Valley and center of Hebron, areas that have been ethnically cleansed over a period of several decades before being earmarked for annexation, are more representative of Israeli policy.
J: Why did Israel refrain from annexing West Bank territory on 1 July?
MR: There are several explanations for this. At one end of the spectrum Anshel Pfeffer, a British-Israeli journalist who recently published a well-regarded critical biography of Netanyahu, claims that the Israeli leader, a risk-averse pragmatist given to gradualism, never had any intention of pursuing annexation and will not do so anytime soon. According to Pfeffer, annexation is for Netanyahu essentially an election gimmick that has served its purpose, an assertion he supports by pointing out how little preparatory work the Israeli prime minister has conducted in this respect during his fourteen years in power or since Trump assumed office in 2017. In this telling, Netanyahu is intelligent enough to take satisfaction with the enormous benefits Israel has already received from Trump. As for the Israeli prime minister’s broader strategic objectives of removing the Question of Palestine from the international agenda and further territorial expansion, these would be imperiled rather than enhanced by annexation.
It’s an interesting argument, but the changing circumstances during the past six weeks in my view provide a more convincing explanation. In their absence even Pfeffer’s recalcitrant Netanyahu would most likely have been compelled to make good on his gimmick.
“Changed circumstances” is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, since in key respects it is not reality that has changed but rather US and Israeli perceptions of it. For example, the Trump administration’s hubristic Metternich-in-residence, Jared Kushner, appears to have genuinely believed that Peace to Prosperity was a feasible plan rather than a diplomatic pretext for unilateral Israeli annexation. He also proved exceptionally gullible in his dealings with Gulf potentates who ingratiated themselves with the Trump White House by persuading Kushner they could deliver the Palestinians and would along with their deep pockets be on board with his proposals. When, as any student who has read twenty-five books on the matter could have predicted, key Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) publicly opposed annexation, disassociated themselves from the Trump Initiative, and communicated to Washington that they would be unable to expand their growing ties with Israel to the level of formal diplomatic relations in the absence of Palestinian statehood and an acceptable resolution for Jerusalem, a key pillar of Kushner’s approach collapsed like a house of cards. (In fairness, Kushner’s hubris was matched by that of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who did make a good faith effort to browbeat Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas into accepting or at least not publicly rejecting Plan Kushner, but achieved nothing). Jordan, considered a key US ally by establishment Republicans and Democrats alike, also made increasingly ominous representations to Washington that annexation would jeopardize both its stability and its relationship with Israel. For good measure Washington’s repeated attempts to bully and intimidate the Palestinians into engaging with the initiative so that it could be marketed as an exercise in diplomacy and conflict resolution also unsurprisingly came to absolutely nothing.
It is exceptionally difficult to produce a Middle East initiative which both carries with it the full weight of US power and is categorically rejected by Mahmoud Abbas and spurned by every US Arab client regime without exception. Yet this is exactly what the venerable quartet of Avi Berkowitz, David Friedman, Jason Greenblatt, and Jared Kushner managed to achieve. In significant part, this reflects their collective, longstanding, and virtually identical commitment to Jewish/Israeli supremacy and personal participation in Israel’s settlement enterprise throughout their adult lives. Collectively these quadruplets are situated not only on the extreme right of the US political spectrum, but of the Israeli one as well, and this is fully reflected in their magnum opus, Peace to Prosperity. It bears recollection that at the time of publication Peace to Prosperity was more extreme in its approach to the Palestinians than the program of the sitting Israeli government.
For Greenblatt and particularly Friedman, the Palestinian refusal to engage with their initiative was most likely an expected and welcome failure because it accelerated the timeline for an Israeli annexation they espouse. But Kushner, while also a devoted annexationist, appears to have drank his own Kool-Aid and believed he was on the cusp of engineering Arab-Israeli peace. When he came to the realization this might not be necessarily so, he began to backtrack, using his unrivalled influence within his father-in-law’s White House to adjust the terms of annexation. In addition to requiring US-Israeli agreement on the territorial contours of annexation, Washington now also demanded consensus between the main Israeli coalition partners for it to proceed. Gantz, expressing concern about the potential repercussions of unilateral annexation if it was conducted as a bilateral US-Israeli transaction without broader international support, withheld his consent.
Growing international opposition to annexation, particularly in Europe, also influenced Israeli calculations. In this respect, Josep Borrell, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, warned that annexation “could not pass unchallenged.” Although the capacity of the European Union to act is limited in the absence of unanimity of its members, and stalwart Israeli supporters like Hungary’s Victor Orban could be relied upon to block collective action, individual European states, including powerful members Germany and France, also expressed their opposition. Many parliamentarians, including majorities in Belgium and the Netherlands, called for sanctions against Israel and/or advocated for recognition of Palestinian statehood, which also influenced Israeli calculations. European civil society and public opinion, like that around the world, expressed much stronger rejection of the US-Israeli agenda.
A more serious concern for Israel is the prospect of criminal charges against the state and individual officials, for example in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. The ICC is currently evaluating whether or not it has jurisdiction over Israeli conduct in the occupied territories. Should the Court determine that it does have jurisdiction, then pursuant to the 2002 Rome Statute that established the ICC, determining Israeli culpability for any act of forcible annexation, which the court defines as a crime of aggression, would be a no-brainer. In these particular circumstances the crime of apartheid, which the ICC defines as a crime against humanity, would apply as well. In an attempt to broaden the circle of culpability Canadian legal scholar William Schabas in late June submitted a complaint to the ICC requesting an investigation of Trump, Netanyahu, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, and Kushner for the commission of war crimes on account of their responsibility for West Bank settlement expansion and acts of annexation.
In a bizarre turn of events, a further blow against Netanyahu’s annexation proposals was delivered by the politically powerful settler movement in the West Bank. Seemingly determined to demonstrate they have definitively taken leave of their senses, the settlers rejected the Trump initiative because it in their view constitutes the founding charter for a Palestinian state. David Elhayani, head of the Yesha Council which is the main settler body, denounced the initiative as a “strategic threat,”, adding that in promoting it Trump and Kushner had had “proven that they are not friends of the state of Israel.” Essentially the settlers demanded that Israel pursue annexation without reference to the Trump initiative so Israel would not fall into the latter’s well-laid trap of Palestinian self-determination. This Netanyahu of course could not and would not do. The settlers’ relentless fanaticism nevertheless raised questions as to whether Netanyahu retained a sufficiently compelling parliamentary majority for his proposals.
Finally, Trump’s declining political fortunes have led to a certain level of reconsideration within Israel. Its leaders are keenly aware that unilateral annexation has little support among Democrats, has been publicly opposed by Joe Biden, and may additionally lose support among Republicans if Trump is ousted in November. With Biden having made his peace with Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and gone on the record that he would not relocate the US embassy back to Tel Aviv, there seems little point in antagonizing him with annexation at a time when his White House prospects are in the ascendant. All the more so at a time when the Democratic Party as whole is moving leftward, and the Sanders faction and new generation of congressional representatives are growing steadily more critical of Israel and its policies.
In a development that has no precedent in US parliamentary history, progressive leader Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) in late June spearheaded an effort to gather signatures for a letter addressed to US Pompeo opposing “unilateral annexation” on the basis that it would deprive the Palestinians people of their rights and result in “apartheid.” In contrast to an earlier letter drafted by other Democrats, this one is framed around concern for Palestinian rights rather than Israeli interests, and expresses the signatories’ intention to hold Israel accountable for its actions by making US aid to Israel conditional on its conduct. The letter has so far garnered over a dozen congressional signatures, a development that in previous years would have been as likely as a petition in the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly denouncing Kim Il-Sung.
Together the above combination of factors persuaded a risk-averse Netanyahu to reconsider annexation, at least for the time being. If this interpretation is indeed correct, it is striking how this result was achieved on the basis of what can only be described as fairly modest pushback. This suggests that the prospects for an organized, sustained global campaign to prevent annexation altogether remains very real, and that the prospects to compel an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories remain alive as well.
J: When all is said and done, and given current realities in the occupied Palestinian territories, would annexation make any difference?
There is a trend among some Palestinians, and some of their supporters abroad, that suggests annexation will not only change nothing on the ground, but may even be desirable because it would clarify the bankruptcy of the Oslo agreements and US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, compel the world to face the reality that Israel is a full-fledged apartheid state, and strengthen the momentum towards a one-state democratic outcome.
I think this is based on a dangerous set of misconceptions. To begin with, as Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard has argued, the legal and administrative changes resulting from annexation will lead to a “massive” and in some cases “automatic” expansion of land expropriation and other human rights violations, and also significantly expand the power of settlement leaders to determine Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. In other words, the reality on the ground is likely to change very substantially.
With respect to the argument that annexation would clarify the true nature of the Oslo agreements and associated diplomatic process, even a cursory conversation with a junior European diplomat immediately reveals that peak clarification was achieved years ago, and that illusions about Peace to Prosperity are non-existent. The days in which governments chose not to challenge Israel and its violations of Palestinian rights on the pretext that doing so would imperil the prospect of diplomatic progress are long gone, so there’s no clarification required on this count either.
The reasons Israel is not being held accountable, even on a matter as minor as UN Security Council Resolution 2334’s 2016 obligation upon member states to distinguish between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, have nothing to do with misconceptions about the true nature of Israeli-Palestinian relations or US diplomacy. They instead reflect the realities of US power, the strength of relations between such states and Israel, the disappearance of the Arab world from the global stage, and the disintegration of the Palestinian national movement. Annexation will neither address nor redress any of these issues.
As for momentum towards a one-state democratic solution in Israel-Palestine, it currently barely registers on the political Richter scale. If it requires annexation to gain serious traction, Israel would first have to incorporate Stockholm. The momentum that annexation does propel forward, immeasurably, is a consolidation of the one-state reality that already exists, and which is designed to enshrine permanent Israeli rule over all of historic Palestine. It is for this reason that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians, their political organizations, and civil society institutions, including those committed to a unitary democratic state between the Mediterranean Sea and River Jordan, have rejected annexation and are campaigning against it.
It should be recognized that the annexation agenda poses a much larger political challenge than posited by those who belittle its significance. It by design seeks to not only shift the focus away from the international consensus which calls for an end to occupation and Palestinian self-determination, but also to transform this consensus to one where international law and established norms are rendered irrelevant, and the Question of Palestine is unilaterally resolved on the basis that might makes right.
Sfard like others points out that for annexationists the second half of 2020 presents a unique historical moment and opportunity, and concludes:
If annexation doesn’t happen within the next few months, it could very well disappear from the agenda for years, becoming irrelevant. The day after annexation is stopped, the occupation will be the same bad old occupation that must be fought, but the political situation will be new. As with every change, it could open the door to new opportunities.
While the argument is logical, I suspect his concluding optimism is currently misplaced on account of the prevailing total disarray in Palestinian ranks and within the Arab world. As the leading Palestinian analyst Hani al-Masri has argued, unless and until this issue is addressed, Palestinians will be largely unable to either create or exploit opportunities for meaningful change.
J: What can be expected in the coming months?
MR: This is a difficult question to answer because so much depends on the constantly and sometimes rapidly shifting multiple dynamics involved.
If, for example, Trump’s meltdown continues apace and his antics lead to his defeat rather than re-election, the window for annexation will close on 20 January 2021. If he wins, annexation by the end of 2021 becomes a virtual certainty. Trump may also change course and insist Netanyahu carry out annexation before the election if he believes it will help him shore up a flagging campaign.
Similarly, Netanyahu’s Adelson-funded house organ, Israel Hayom, has recently been suggesting that Netanyahu feels sufficiently strengthened vis-a-vis Gantz that he may call yet another election to get out of the rotation agreement that would see him cede the premiership to Gantz next year. Should this scenario indeed transpire, Netanyahu can be counted upon to base his campaign on the need for a more powerful Likud to finally enable annexation. If the gamble pays off and a coalition is formed with parties to Likud’s right, Israel may make its move before January 2020 even if Trump is ousted in November. Israel may also try to pull a fast one under cover of the global Covid-19 crisis, particularly if the pandemic deteriorates further during the second half of 2020.
The extent to which Netanyahu will formulate policy in response to developments regarding his criminal file, his desire to secure his legacy as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, or his lifelong commitment to Israeli expansionism is more difficult to ascertain, but each of these seems to point towards annexation. Will he instead listen to the Israeli security establishment, which has been warning about the risks of annexation to the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to Jordan’s stability, and Israel’s relations with Europe? This seems unlikely.
Another imponderable is the international response to an eventual resumption of US-Israeli moves towards annexation. Will the Europeans conclude they need to decide upon specific, meaningful sanctions and clearly communicate their intentions to Israel in order to deter its government, or once again make do with vague statements about consequences and hope for the best? Will Brexit Britain continue to articulate a watered-down version of the position of its former French and German partners that ultimately rejects annexation? Or will a beleaguered and desperate Boris Johnson throw in his lot with a re-elected Trump and at least implicitly endorse Israeli moves in order to secure preferential treatment in Washington, in the process opening the door for other states like Australia, Canada, and India to follow suit? Will governments like South Africa and Turkey seek to influence decision-makers beyond their borders, and succeed in doing so? How will matters develop at the ICC? Will Russia limit its role to verbal censure in order to preserve its understandings with Israel on Syria, or will a potential Russian-Israeli standoff over Syria and/or Moscow’s desire to embarrass the United States and European Union over Crimea produce a more active Russian attempt to enter into yet another Middle East void at Washington’s expense? There is little clarity on any of these issues, but all need to be closely monitored.
On present form the Arab states are likely to continue to maintain their public opposition to annexation and refrain from formal normalization with Israel but remain incapable of mustering a meaningful collective response. Should Israel in the coming months provoke an armed conflict with the Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance,” it is unclear if and how this might impact annexation.
In the territories directly affected, it is tempting to write off the Palestinians in view of the fragmentation and disintegration affecting virtually every aspect of Palestinian life. Yet new forms of Palestinian activism are constantly emerging throughout the Palestinian world, and may yet serve as a catalyst for the urgently needed renewal of the national movement. Even Abbas, responding to the utter incompatibility of Peace to Prosperity with any form of Palestinian self-government and the accelerating evaporation of his own legitimacy, has for the first time begun to make good on his repeated threats to scale down cooperation with the United States and Israel. But in order to successfully mobilize their own resources and use these to rally allies and cajole others to join them in meeting the challenges of this existential crisis, Palestinians will require new leadership and rejuvenated organizational structures that take time to develop.
1 July 2020 was an artificial deadline imposed by Israel upon itself. The fact that it passed without incident is of only minor significance in the larger scheme of things. The direction of travel is clearly towards annexation. Yet its implementation is by no means a foregone conclusion, and the political space to prevent it still exists.