In case you didn’t notice, July 1 came and went without the Israeli government implementing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank.
Although annexation faced substantial political opposition both at home and abroad (mainly in Washington, with Netanyahu telling Likud members this week he is waiting for a green light from the Trump administration), a large part of the Israeli public was simply indifferent to the subject. Its members have more urgent issues vying for their attention right now. Even so, polling shows that among those who had an opinion, on average, only about half were in favor of unilateral annexation of any scope.
A late-2019 poll by the Institute for National Security Studies, for example, showed 55 percent of Israelis in favor of annexation of some form, with the largest fraction, 26 percent, believing it should only take in the so-called settlement blocs (where most Jewish settlement is concentrated). By June, the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute found only 46 percent in favor of annexation in any form, while a survey undertaken by the Geneva Initiative put support at 32.2 percent – a number that went down to 20 percent when those polled were asked to imagine that annexation would seriously risk harming Israel’s diplomatic relations with Egypt and Jordan.
“Even those who want to see all of [the West Bank] as an integral part of Israel are aware of the consequences [of unilateral action],” observed Guttman Center Academic Director Prof. Tamar Hermann at the time.
“Israelis know that if they don’t give Palestinians rights, the price would be very costly, in terms of international opinion and international law,” she said. “So, if you don’t want to give them rights [a large portion of the public seem to be saying], then don’t annex; it’s best to leave things as they are now.”
According to political scientist and pollster Dahlia Scheindlin, even if people are not “taking to the streets to demand the two-state solution, a lot of people are uncomfortable with the annexation plan.”
They have many reasons for concern, she suggests. “They’ve heard it may cause escalation or violence on the security level. They understand it could make problems with the U.S. – nobody’s really sure if the U.S. supports it or not. It could mess up relations with the Gulf states, which are starting to deepen, and Europe doesn’t like it.”
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In her own annexation-related survey, Scheindlin didn’t give respondents the option of expressing “no opinion,” and they were split almost half and half: 48 percent were either “somewhat” or “strongly” in favor of annexation, and 52 percent opposed it either somewhat or strongly.
In her poll, as with the others cited, there was a strong correlation between respondents identifying themselves as religiously observant and their support for annexation.
In any event, the public did not share the urgency that Netanyahu apparently felt for unilateral action in the occupied territories, considering the many other challenges facing the country now. Reflecting that indifference, the Geneva Initiative poll found that only 3.5 percent listed annexation among their top two priorities – as compared with 42 percent who ranked the economy among their highest concerns, 24.6 percent for health issues and 17.4 percent for security.
Still, the annexation comet could make another appearance in the skies over Israel one of these days. Even if it doesn’t, the recent sighting is a reminder that 53 years after the start of the occupation, Israelis have never decisively sought to arrive at a national consensus regarding what they would like to see happen with the territories. With the Jewish settlements. With the nearly 3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank.
A similar ambivalence can be observed among successive Israeli governments. On the one hand, a natural instinct to settle and build wherever possible in the historic “Land of Israel” has characterized them all, but it is in tandem with an awareness of international law, of American warnings against unilateral action, and widespread understanding that any hope of peace with the Arab world would likely be dependent on Israeli withdrawal from all or part of the territories.
The Palestinian problem
When the Six-Day War broke out in June 1967, Israel was governed by an emergency unity coalition. But that coalition was led by then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, whose left-wing Alignment (forerunner to the Labor Party) dominated the cabinet.
On June 12, 1967, Eshkol received a memo from Shlomo Hillel in which the latter, at the time the head of the Foreign Ministry’s Arab Desk, laid out the various options he saw for the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip – territories the state had just conquered. In the top secret memo, Hillel, who went on to serve as a government minister and as Knesset speaker, recommended against the possibility of an Israeli withdrawal from any part of the territories. Instead, he urged Eshkol to consider “annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in their entirety.”
Hillel didn’t say it openly, but implicit in his memo (found by historian Adam Raz of the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research) was that with the proposed annexation, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza – who then totaled a little over 1 million – would be offered the opportunity to become citizens or permanent residents of Israel. These were the options offered to the Arabs living in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, both of which were annexed by Israel (the former almost immediately; the latter in 1981).
About a month after receiving Hillel’s memo, Eshkol was sent the first of four memoranda by Eliyahu Sasson, who headed the Jewish Agency’s Arab department. (To date, Raz has tracked down three of the four memos, and published them on the Akevot website.) In them, Sasson makes the case against annexation, and even promotes the idea, as he later described it, of “an appropriate and fitting solution to [the Palestinian] problem … whether in the form of an independent Palestinian state, or an autonomous entity that would be connected by agreement with Israel or with Jordan.”
As we know, Eshkol adopted neither of those proposals. Instead, he and his cabinet agreed not to declare any definitive policy publicly, even as they began that same summer to create facts on the ground in the territories. It came naturally to them.
Core value of the left
“Settlement in itself was a core value of Labor Zionism,”explains Gershom Gorenberg, author of the 2006 book “The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements 1967-1977.” There and in subsequent writing (for instance, a 2017 article in The American Prospect), Gorenberg has attempted to dispel the common conception that the settlement enterprise was forced on Israel by a small but highly committed coterie of messianic religious nationalists.
Of course, the Gush Emunim movement and its allies were an essential force behind the settlement drive, and remain a stubborn impediment to any possibility of territorial compromise, but they would have gotten nowhere without the backing of successive Labor and, post-1977, Likud governments, Gorenberg argues.
It was Eshkol and his successors who established the parameters for settlement in the occupied territories, beginning in the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, before moving onto the West Bank and Gaza.
Gorenberg points, for example, to the reestablishment, in September 1967, of Kfar Etzion – the religious kibbutz in the West Bank, south of Jerusalem – under the leadership of a young Orthodox rabbi, who as a child had been evacuated from the community when it was under siege in 1948.
That rabbi, 23-year-old Hanan Porat, “thought he had forced Levi Eshkol into restarting Kfar Etzion, but that’s because Eshkol didn’t tell him: ‘I’ve been discussing this all summer with my advisers,’” Gorenberg says. In his telling, “The biggest advocates for settlement in the occupied territories, with different plans for where to do it, were Eshkol [and Alignment colleagues] Shimon Peres, Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon.”
The politicians were influenced by such figures as Labor movement guru Yitzhak Tabenkin, who preached an almost mystical call for settlement in all of the land; and by cultural figures like poet Natan Alterman, who decried the possibility of Israel withdrawing from the West Bank, which he called “the cradle of the nation,” and the younger Haim Gouri, a poet and journalist who was an early enthusiast of settlement.
It’s true, says Gorenberg, that the pace of settlement activity was stepped up significantly after Likud came to power in 1977. But, he notes, it was a “renegade Ma’arachnik” (Labor man) – namely, Ariel Sharon – who “became the biggest project manager in setting up settlements.” And it was Sharon who conceived of the strategic map that to this day offers the basis for their distribution and placement in the territories.
Drawing up plans
A week after the end of the Six-Day War, the cabinet held a marathon, secret two-day meeting, intended to adopt a policy regarding the territories. Instead, it ended with no decision since, Gorenberg explains, forcing a decision would have ripped apart the Alignment.
Allon, one of the party’s charismatic former generals (as well as a follower of Tabenkin), saw himself as Eshkol’s successor as premier. He proposed the establishment of a line of Israeli settlements along the length of the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea, and a corridor cutting across the West Bank, linking Jerusalem to the Jordan Valley.
Dayan wanted to settle the high ground of the West Bank (Allon anticipated returning it to Jordan), but also advocated maintaining overall Israeli control over the territory even as he recommending dividing it up into enclaves of Palestinian populations that would have local autonomy.
The only thing everyone agreed upon was the need to annex the Gaza Strip to Israel, with a consensus for moving the Palestinian refugees living there to Jordan. At the time of the war, Gaza had some 400,000 residents, about half of whom were refugees.
In January 1968, Eshkol traveled to the United States to meet with President Lyndon B. Johnson at his Texas ranch. When Johnson asked the Israeli premier, “What kind of Israel do you want?” – by which he meant, What are your plans for the occupied territories? – Eshkol’s response, he later told Allon, was, “My government has decided not to decide.”
Gorenberg: “You might ask: Why did they think they could get away with this? Both in the Dayan and Allon conceptions, the idea was: we won the war, and the Arabs are going to have to get used to the new reality. And if they don’t get used to that new reality, we’re going to have to hold out, because it’s worse to agree to conditions that would give us less than this.”
This may seem less surprising if one recalls, as researcher and activist Shaul Arieli explains, that historically the three main “strategic goals of the Zionist movement were to establish a democratic state, with a Jewish majority, and in all of Mandatory Palestine.”
The pre-state Zionist leadership led by David Ben-Gurion, which combined vision with practicality, accepted the 1947 UN plan to divide “Eretz Israel.” But the compromise was painful, and when the War of Independence gave Israel a chance to improve upon the borders of the partition plan (which the Arabs had in any case not accepted), it did. You didn’t need to see the Six-Day War in messianic terms to view the “liberation” of Judea and Samaria as another Zionist opportunity.
Public opinion expert Hermann relates that polls taken immediately after the Six-Day War showed that a clear majority of Israelis – more than 60 percent – felt that “we should go ahead, we should annex everything.”
Gorenberg mentions a poll from July 1967 showing that 71 percent of the public was in favor of keeping the West Bank, and 85 percent the Golan. Not all of this was ideology or sentiment. Israelis had just entered a war not knowing if they would come out the other side with their state intact and, as Gorenberg notes, it was a common conclusion that “keeping land was the key to safety.”
Hermann also stresses that, at the time, “There was no Palestinian national movement – people didn’t even speak about Palestinians, they spoke about ‘Arabs.’ No one spoke about international law and there was no awareness that Palestinians aspired to have a national state.”
Historian Raz concurs with that analysis. “In principle,” he says, “one needs to remember that the idea of a Palestinian state was not hegemonic [in Israel] until the 1990s. All kinds of options were raised regarding the future of the territories, ranging from annexation to a federation, and up through autonomy – but people didn’t talk about a state.”
Raz says that people on the right still like to point out how then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995 – two years after he signed the Oslo Accords – made a speech “in which he said explicitly that he was in favor of autonomy for the Palestinians, not a state.”
Raz continues: “There are also essential differences in the emphasis Israelis would put on the Palestinians themselves. Take, for example, Yeshayahu Leibowitz” – the iconoclastic Orthodox philosopher who railed against the settlement movement, and against Jewish sanctification of real estate in general. “He spoke immediately following the war about the need for the complete withdrawal from the territories. But in his words, he didn’t put an emphasis on the Palestinians, but rather on the [moral] degradation that occupation would cause to the Jewish public.”
Scheindlin scolds me when I wonder aloud how Israeli Jews could continue to reconcile Jewish values with their ongoing rule over another people. She is convinced that most Israelis don’t think about their Judaism in terms of “embracing the ger [non-Jew or alien]. They’re thinking about their Judaism in nationalist terms, and in Hobbesian terms.
“A sense of existential threat,” Scheindlin says, “is the primary driver of Israeli politics.”
Ehud Olmert became prime minister in January 2006, after Ariel Sharon went into a coma caused by a stroke. He had grown up in a Revisionist household and entered the Knesset for the first time in 1978, at age 28, on the Likud slate. Olmert opposed then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin when he negotiated Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai in return for peace with Egypt, but by 2003 – when he was a minister in Sharon’s government – he was open to territorial compromise.
Olmert supported Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 – what the premier called the “disengagement” – and when he succeeded Sharon, Olmert was convinced that Israel needed to come to a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians, and this had to be based on Israeli withdrawal and establishment of a Palestinian state.
In 2007-2008, he personally negotiated with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – talks that were brought to an end by Olmert’s own legal troubles and Operation Cast Lead, the brief 2008-2009 war in Gaza.
I wondered how Olmert, as a career politician and former premier who had traveled a long path to his belief that Israel should assent to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank (even as he continued to assert the “historic right of the people of Israel to the entire Land of Israel”), understood the average Israeli’s perception of the question. He rightly refuses to generalize. But he does agree that an important component of the Israeli psyche was “the national historical memory of antisemitism, hatred, the Holocaust, and the persecution of Jews in many different countries,” including in the Muslim world, which drove out most of its Jews in the early years of Israeli statehood.
One consequence of that experience is an attitude that “we have to rely entirely on our power,” he says. “This is ours, this is our land, we have to stay here no matter what the international community thinks.”
Olmert says that back in 1967, “the [current] rhetoric of Netanyahu and others that the [pre-war borders] are indefensible may have been true. In 1967, when there was a strong Jordanian army, when there was a huge Iraqi army just across from Jordan, there was a certain logic to this fear.”
Today, says Olmert, “all of this is nonsense.” He continues to believe that “we can afford to pull out to ’67 lines, with minor modifications on the basis of swaps of territories.”
To Olmert, the real existential threat faced by Israel comes from not addressing the Palestinian issue.
Political feedback loop
Gorenberg points to something like a political feedback loop, by which the Israeli electorate keeps the politicians in check by voting them out of office when they go too far in one direction or another.
This, he wrote in a chapter he contributed to a 2012 book about Middle East diplomacy, is what “has helped drive the repeated changes in power in Israel over the past two decades. The public may be unhappy with its elected leaders for being too dovish, as in Ehud Barak’s landslide 2001 loss. But it can also reject incumbents for being too hawkish, as in the defeat of the Likud prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, by Labor’s Rabin in 1992.”
The feedback can go in the other direction as well, indicating that public opinion, far from being rigid and ideological, can swing dramatically based on outside events.
So, when the Guttman Institute asked a sample of voters in November 1976 whether they believed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s declaration that he was ready for peace, 17.5 percent responded in the affirmative. Yet a year later, following Sadat’s visit to Israel and appearance at the Knesset to make a personal appeal for peace, the same pollsters found that 86.4 percent of Israelis now believed him.
Writes Gorenberg: “Willingness to withdraw from part or all of the Sinai tracked closely with trust in Sadat’s intentions. … [T]he Israeli public became an unrecognized but real party at the table,” with the result being a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 and Israel’s gradual withdrawal from the entire Sinai Peninsula.
Similarly, we regularly have proof that rank-and-file Likudniks, especially since its more centrist members split off to form Kadima in 2006, can be more ideologically right-wing than the party’s leadership. One example of that was the Likud Party congress, comprised of 1,500 party members, voting unanimously in December 2017 to call on the party’s leadership to “take action to facilitate unlimited construction and to apply the laws of Israel and its sovereignty over all the liberated settlement zones in Judea and Samaria.” In other words, annexation.
Needless to say, the final word on annexation has yet to be uttered – in fact, the debate has barely begun. What seems clear is that, for both voters and their elected officials, ambivalence is the byword. More than half a century after the West Bank fell into Israel’s hands, Israelis still haven’t decided what they should do with it.