History was made Friday on the front page of Israeli tabloid Yedioth Ahronoth. A senior official of a Gulf state, UAE ambassador to Washington Yousef Al Otaiba, penned a direct appeal to the Israeli public, along with a heartfelt video message. Please, he appealed, don’t annex any of the occupied territory in the West Bank.
“Annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with UAE,” Al Otaiba wrote. In separate interview with Abu Dhabi-based The National, he spoke movingly of “all the progress and the attitude shift that you have seen, people being less hostile to Israel,” which “could be undermined by the decision to annex.”
He singled out the landing this week of a Boeing 787 wearing the colors of the UAE’s Etihad Airways at Ben-Gurion Airport. He also mentioned the recent participation of Israeli athletes in sporting competitions in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Annexation, he warned “will make a lot of those things more difficult.”
“Normal is not annexation,” Al Otaiba wrote. “Instead, annexation is a misguided provocation of another order. And continued talk of normalisation would be just mistaken hope for better relations with the Arab states.”
The ambassador’s warning came with a tree-full of olive leaves. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that without annexation, normalization can go full steam ahead.
He paid lip service to the UAE’s continuing support for the Palestinian people and the 18-year-old Arab Peace Initiative, which envisages full relations with Israel only when it retreats from all the territory captured in the Six-Day War, including East Jerusalem. But he was very clear that this can wait. For now, all Israel needs to do is continue the military occupation, without annexing, and normalization can proceed apace.
The ambassador’s intervention came just a couple of days after the visit to Israel and Jordan by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. Despite being Israel's ally, Germany, under Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership, has been outspoken in its criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu’s West Bank policies. No longer. Maas came to Jerusalem to warn the government against pursuing annexation. But he was wary. Some European countries, he said, would move to sanction Israel if it went ahead. But not Germany.
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So careful was Maas that despite his original intention of visiting the Palestinians in Ramallah as well, he gave up on the short trip when the Israelis said he would have to go into COVID-19 self-quarantine the moment he crossed the checkpoint back to Jerusalem. The Germans could have easily called out Israel on that – thousands of Israelis and Palestinians cross over daily without any need for self-quarantine. But this isn’t a time to anger Netanyahu. Maas spoke with the Palestinian leadership over Zoom.
It’s not only the Germans who are treading carefully. On Thursday, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security, Josep Borrell, phoned his opposite number in Jerusalem, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, to congratulate him on his appointment. Annexation came up in the conversation but in the EU’s official read-back of the phone conversation, it only made a very brief appearance at the end of the fourth paragraph: “The High Representative shared the EU’s concerns with regard to a potential annexation.”
The EU, Israel’s main trading partner and provider of hundreds of millions of euros in research-and-development funds, should be able to do a bit more than “share concerns.” But Borrell was muted.
Achieving his legacy
What they’re all doing is conceding to Netanyahu. They don’t want him to annex, but they acknowledge that this is something now in his power to do. And Netanyahu is already banking that victory.
It’s hard to pin down a frank and truthful statement from the prime minister, but the best place to do so is in his interviews with the right-wing media. In an interview with the Netanyahu-worshipping free sheet Israel Hayom, he had this to say to right-wingers criticizing him for accepting the Trump plan, which also includes the establishment of a Palestinian state in 70 percent of the West Bank:
“Did they achieve from the Americans the issue of applying sovereignty? Who achieved it? For the first time since the founding of the state I’ve obtained American recognition – first in the Golan Heights and Jerusalem and then in an arrangement that will allow American recognition of our homeland territories in Judea and Samaria. These are Trump’s decisions and I’m the one who discussed them with him. Not anyone else.”
Sources in the government are calling the annexation “Netanyahu’s legacy,” but as far as he’s concerned he has already achieved his legacy. “The main thing now is the change of rules regarding applying sovereignty,” he told the right-wing weekly Makor Rishon.
“Until today it was always Israel that needed to concede, to give up, to freeze and retreat. That was the basic idea of every peace plan that had been presented to us. Now comes President Trump and his people come, and they change direction. They don’t say Israel needs to concede. It’s the Palestinians who need to concede.”
Netanyahu is a politician who has always placed major value on words, on the prevailing discourse. And in this case he’s right. The words have changed. Even when everyone calls it “annexation” rather than “applying sovereignty,” which he insists on using, he has changed the discourse. No one is talking about pullbacks and dismantling settlements anymore.
Whether or not he goes ahead with annexation, Netanyahu has already won. Twenty-four years ago, when he first became prime minister, he was forced to continue the Oslo process, which as opposition leader he abominated. Bill Clinton made him retreat from most of Hebron and sign the Wye River Memorandum in 1998, relinquishing more territory. In 2009, when he returned to power and this time met Barack Obama at the White House, he was pressured into agreeing to a temporary settlement freeze and publicly accepting the two-state solution.
Eleven years later and so much has changed. In his speech to the UN General Assembly in 2010, Obama said “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations – an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.” But by the end of his presidency, he wasn’t even mentioning Israel and Palestine in his UN speeches. The pendulum had been swinging back already in 2014, when the talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry, ran aground.
So many factors worked against the diplomatic process long before Donald Trump was elected. The Arab revolutions that broke out in 2011 moved the focus elsewhere. The Sunni Arab states preferred to enter an unofficial alliance with Israel against Iran.
Under Obama, Washington dramatically lost credibility in the region when it decided not to act against the Assad regime’s mass murder of Syrian civilians. The Palestinians themselves, split between the Fatah-dominated PA in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza, failed to present a unified position. Netanyahu hadn’t created any of these circumstances, but he used them all masterfully to his benefit. He realized that it would be relatively easy for him to withstand pressure to make concessions.
The Palestinian issue, for so long a constant presence on the international agenda, was sidelined. For decades, the Israeli left wing and Western politicians and pundits had warned that the occupation in the West Bank was “unsustainable,” that perpetuating it would make Israel a “global pariah,” that a “diplomatic tsunami” was on the way. Two sets of acronyms were used to threaten Israel – BDS and ICC. But the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement turned out to be an empty threat and the International Criminal Court has yet to decide whether it even has jurisdiction over events in the West Bank and Gaza, let alone haul Israeli officials before it.
Victory at Ben-Gurion Airport
This week was the 53rd anniversary of the Six-Day War. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has proved remarkably durable, and yes, altogether sustainable. In the meantime, under a right-wing Netanyahu government that has been entrenching the occupation, Israel in the last five years has enjoyed unprecedented economic prosperity, the lowest levels of violence since its independence and burgeoning foreign trade and relations.
These ties include, since 2018, the overflight of Saudi airspace for airliners en route to Israel, and just this week the first landing of an Etihad plane at Ben-Gurion Airport. This is what normalization looks like.
Even if annexation doesn’t take place next month, the Israeli left, the so-called “international community” and the “peace process industry” of nongovernmental organizations, think tanks and UN agencies have to finally concede defeat. For decades they operated on the premise that for Israel to have any hope of security and prosperity, it needed to give up control of the occupied territories and allow the establishment of a Palestinian state.
They’ve now reached the point that the best they can hope for is Netanyahu not annexing parts of the West Bank. And if he indeed holds off with annexation, it will have a lot more to do with his own internal political and legal considerations than with their pressure.
Some of them still cling to a forlorn hope of external pressure being brought on Israel once Trump leaves, as if eight years of Obama didn’t teach them anything. But Joe Biden has already made it clear that while he’s against annexation, if he becomes president, relaunching the peace process won’t be high on his agenda. He doesn’t even plan to reverse Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. And it’s not as if a European Union that can barely agree within itself on a COVID-19 economic recovery plan is going to suddenly have any leverage in the region.
Netanyahu has won. The debate over annexation is proof of how he has moved the discourse away from any real attempt at resolving the conflict. Those who have a real interest in finding that solution need a complete rethink on how to convince Israelis that it’s still in their interest. Threats haven’t worked.