Opinion

Will the Coronavirus Crisis Accelerate Israel’s West Bank Annexation – or Derail It?

Netanyahu’s fast-track West Bank settlement move risks infuriating key current and future allies. Trump, Biden or his base: Israel’s prime minister must decide who’s dispensable

Daniel B. Shapiro
Daniel B. Shapiro
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during his visit at the Health Ministry national hotline during the coronavirus crisis. Kiryat Malachi, Israel, March 1, 2020
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during his visit at the Health Ministry national hotline during the coronavirus crisis. Kiryat Malachi, Israel, March 1, 2020Credit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS
Daniel B. Shapiro
Daniel B. Shapiro

The Israeli coalition government agreed to by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the leader of a shrunken Blue and White party, Benny Gantz, will make its first priority addressing the health and economic challenges of the COVID-19 outbreak. In fact, for the first six months, at least according to its own declarations, it will deal with fallout from the pandemic almost exclusively, as an emergency government.

But one unrelated issue is carved out for potential consideration during this period: Israel’s unilateral annexation of portions of the West Bank. According to the coalition agreement, anytime after July 1st, Netanyahu can bring annexation to a vote in the Cabinet or the Knesset by himself, following consultations with Gantz and U.S. President Donald Trump, and considering other factors such as the views of defense officials, and likely international and regional reactions.

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Corona keeps Bibi in power and unmasks the MossadCredit: Haaretz

It sounds, therefore, like annexation, a critical issue for U.S. policy, is on a fast track, spurred on by the COVID-19 emergency

But is it? As we have already seen, the virus infects politics in unexpected ways. Three factors, all shaped in some measure by COVID-19, will determine whether it will happen or not.

First, there are internal Israeli political dynamics. Those largely point toward annexation occurring. Gantz chose the path of a unity government to address the pandemic emergency, sacrificing much leverage in the subsequent coalition negotiations. Netanyahu is keen to capitalize on the promise of Trump’s peace plan, which envisions Israel annexing some 30 percent of the West Bank. 

President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Sunday, April 5, 2020, in Washington D.C.Credit: Patrick Semansky / AP

That plan also calls for the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state, following negotiations, across several disconnected territorial enclaves, and subject to conditions Palestinians will have a difficult time meeting. But Trump’s advisers clarified that Israeli annexation could proceed, and gain U.S. recognition, even ahead of any actual negotiations.

Netanyahu endorsed a two-state solution in his 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech, but has eschewed it since 2015 and cast his political fortunes with an ideological right-wing base. For Netanyahu now, annexation of the Jordan Valley and Israeli settlements in the West Bank looms as a tantalizing legacy.

Gantz, for his part, is lukewarm on unilateral measures. He tempered his praise for Trump’s plan with caveats calling for steps to be taken in agreement with the Palestinians and supported by an international consensus. But knowing that a Knesset majority supports annexation, including members of his own faction, Gantz seems unlikely to throw himself in front of the train to stop it.

A major objection from Jordan, putting at risk its peace treaty with Israel, or from Arab states like Saudi Arabia, could inject new caution into the Israeli debate or timetable. Gantz would certainly seize on them.

But those states, consumed as they are with their own COVID-19 challenges and the oil market collapse, and still seeking constructive relations with the Trump administration, are unlikely to go beyond mild rhetorical opposition. Palestinian Authority threats to suspend security and health cooperation with Israel are likely to be dismissed — perhaps dangerously so.

The second factor is the logic of proceeding with annexation before the U.S. election in November. For diehard supporters, there is no time like the present: the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of the Trump presidency must not be squandered, and annexation is urgent precisely because he could lose. They may also argue that annexation will get little attention in the U.S. campaign, which will be focused largely on COVID-19 recovery.

For others, rushing forward only months before Americans vote is a foolhardy step. If Trump wins, then clearly nothing would hold back annexation in his second term. But if Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is elected, Israel could find itself in an awkward position with the new administration. 

In his video address to the AIPAC policy conference, Biden called on Israel to end its threats of annexation, and urged Israelis and Palestinians both to do more to preserve prospects for a two-state solution. 

Israel may be counting on Trump to immediately recognize Israeli sovereignty over those areas it annexes – which surely no other country will join. But should Israel expect a potential new Democratic administration, one that seeks to restore American leadership and shore up traditional alliances, to uphold that recognition? 

Should Israel expect that administration, one that defines preserving the viability of a two-state solution as crucial to U.S. interests — indeed, as critical to the long-term health of a values-based U.S.-Israel partnership that enjoys bipartisan support, to refrain from any balancing step that provides some hope to Palestinians? 

If Israeli strategists, and not just politicians, gain a seat at the table, these questions could give pause to an early decision to annex. Underscoring the point, over 130 mainstream American Jewish leaders, including many with ties to Biden, recently urged Israel not to proceed with annexation. 

The third consideration that could affect annexation’s prospects are the technical and political challenges in preparing and implementing it. In February, the United States and Israel appointed members of a joint mapping committee charged with determining the precise boundaries of the areas that Israel would annex and the U.S. would recognize. It convened at least once in the West Bank, before the world was turned upside down by COVID-19.

Israeli soldiers patrol a fence to prevent Palestinian labourers without work permits entering Israel amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. Israeli-occupied West Bank, April 7, 2020
Israeli soldiers patrol a fence to prevent Palestinian labourers without work permits entering Israel amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. Israeli-occupied West Bank, April 7, 2020Credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/ REUTERS

Now, with the difficulty of travel and the constraints of social distancing, the work of that joint committee is challenged like all intense group projects are. Considering the health and economic emergency Israel faces, it may be harder to justify the resources in staff and time, or the health risks to the participants, to rush forward with the project.

And as the committee has had little input from Israel’s security sector, most notably the IDF, which would be charged with defending the redrawn borders, ex- Chief of Staff Gantz might insist on adding members of the committee who bring that perspective.

But the work of this committee was always likely to be extremely difficult. Netanyahu’s confident predictions before the election that it could complete the mapping in a few weeks were wildly optimistic. That is because once the work gets underway, there will be heavy lobbying from settler communities – supported by influential ministers in the Israeli government – to define their borders in expansive terms, which in aggregate could far exceed the 30 percent of the West Bank stipulated in the Trump plan.

There is relevant history here. In 2004, following an exchange of letters between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and their top advisers, the two governments agreed to embark on a process of defining the areas of Israeli settlements in which the United States would not object to continued construction.

Then-U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, who led the U.S. side of the negotiations, has written about what happened next. His Israeli counterpart, Brigadier General Baruch Spiegel, committed to bring Israeli maps outlining the settlement boundaries they sought to agree upon. But he never did. 

U.S. President George W. Bush, Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas finalize the road map to peace. Aqaba, Jordan, June 4, 2003
U.S. President George W. Bush, Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas finalize the road map to peace. Aqaba, Jordan, June 4, 2003 Credit: AP

Faced with settlement leaders advocating broad definitions of their territory, as well as the unavoidable exposure to the Americans of settlement expansion that had been carried out in violation of Israeli law, Spiegel was unable to establish an internal Israeli consensus on what the boundaries should be. The talks with the Americans quietly petered out, and no understandings on boundaries were reached.

That exercise involved only Israeli settlements in what are known as the blocs, the large communities in close proximity to the 1967 lines. At the time, the total settlement population was 247,000. The Trump plan envisions annexation of over 120 individual communities throughout the West Bank, some of them deep within territory intended for the Palestinian state, with a total population of well over 400,000, as well as broad swath of the Jordan Valley. 

Anyone who thinks the ability to gain an Israeli consensus, much less a U.S.-Israeli agreement, over what those boundaries should be in a few weeks of committee work ignores the history and reality of what influences those decisions.

Can Netanyahu, heading into his trial on corruption charges, resist the pressure of his political base to seek a broader annexation? Would Trump, who believes he gave Israel a great deal, accept more annexation than his plan envisioned? How would Arab states react as the boundaries stretched?

And if the jockeying for favored outcomes prolongs the mapping process into the fall, how would the decision look to Israelis – and to Americans – only weeks before a possible Biden victory?

If you are a betting person, don’t confuse excitable rhetoric with cold reality – and don’t mortgage your future on any outcome.

Daniel B. Shapiro is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017. Twitter: @DanielBShapiro

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