Remarks by a senior Israeli official on Monday that the United States recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights is a harbinger of a similar recognition in the West Bank distort the issue, purporting to draw a general principle from the American move when no such principle exists.
“Everyone is saying that it is impossible to hold occupied territory, and look, it is possible,” the official said. Such a move doesn't involve retaining the occupied territory until its final status is agreed upon by the parties involved, but rather means the unilateral application of sovereignty by an occupying country. This is an entirely different matter and the reasoning behind it, according to the senior Israeli official, is that U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights establishes a principle that territory captured in a defensive war can be retained.
Even if we ignore the repeated mistaken claim that the issue only involves holding territory, it’s clear from U.S. President Donald Trump’s proclamation that the senior Israeli official was being a bit hasty. According to Trump, Israel took control of the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War “to safeguard its security from external threats.” Trump went on to state that the recognition is appropriate because of the "unique circumstances" – “aggressive acts by Iran and terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, in southern Syria continue to make the Golan Heights a potential launching ground for attacks on Israel.”
But the unique circumstances to which the U.S. president refers don’t exist in the West Bank, where there is security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority. It also requires imagination to view the occupation of the West Bank as the result of a defensive war.
It’s clear that the presidential proclamation does not rely on a sweeping general principle, as the senior Israeli official would have it. Quite the opposite – it’s based on unique circumstances. There is also no resemblance between the situation in the Golan Heights and the West Bank in other respects, including the size of the non-Jewish population there, the importance of the West Bank for the Palestinian people if they are to realize their inherent right to self-determination, and with regard to Israeli conduct in the West Bank.
For the past 52 years, Israel has refrained from annexing the West Bank and has conducted negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on the territory’s future as well as Israel’s military authority in the territory. Israel has in fact violated international law by settling its own citizens in the West Bank, for the most part using a variety of explanations that over time turned out to be false and by its failure to administer the territory as trustee for its inhabitants.
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It’s difficult to assume that a violator of international law can acquire rights by violating international law. A wrongdoer in such circumstances can’t reward itself.
According to customary international law, an army’s effective control of territory cannot in and of itself provide the basis for transfer control of the territory to a country. And the use of force or the threat of force does not confer sovereignty over territory. That’s the logic and the basis for military occupation – that it’s a temporary arrangement in which the military’s presence is limited to maintaining public order on the ground and preserving the legal situation there unless it is decisively necessary to change it, and then only until the parties involved come to an agreement on the disposition of the territory.
It’s reasonable to assume that even if the Trump administration, which does not have moral authority or leadership status in the world, would decide to recognize a future Israeli annexation of all or part of the West Bank, it would not lead other countries to follow suit. Instead, such a move would be expected to be denounced by most of the international community as a violation of a fundamental tenet of international law.
It also bears mentioning that when the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it said that in doing so, it was not taking a position on the final disposition of the city, including Israel’s sovereign border in Jerusalem, the eastern portion of which the Palestinians are demanding as their future capital.
There are therefore two ways in which the remarks by the senior Israeli official can be understood. One is that they were made in the context of competition between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and the Hayamin Hehadash party for votes in the upcoming election among supporters of annexation in the West Bank. Likud is using Trump and his receptiveness to score points against Hayamin Hehadash. If that’s the case, there’s no reason to overreact.
But the second possibility is that the issue is for real, that Likud in fact would like to carry out an annexation. That can’t be ruled out. The ground has already been prepared for such as step with last year’s passage of the nation-state law.
That law declares Jewish settlement of the land as a national value that must be promoted. It’s clear that at least according to proponents of the law, this value doesn’t stop at Israel’s border with the West Bank, and that accordingly, the government will work to expand Jewish settlement in the West Bank too.
The nation-state law places supreme, preeminent value on Israel’s character as a Jewish state and in the best of cases provides a constitutional basis for West Bank annexation and enshrining of an apartheid regime. No one, even those with such intentions, would agree to talk about a worst case scenario in which the demographic balance in the West Bank would be changed by force.
And why improve the lot of Arab citizens of Israel, which the Israeli right wing doesn’t view as genuine partners in Israeli politics? If the second thesis described above is correct, and there really is a desire to annex all or part of the West Bank, the fact that Likud is heading into the election without a policy platform is nothing short of scandalous, demonstrating its real attitude toward the voters, which it sees as people who are not serious and who can be ridiculed and blindly led towards goals that they would not favor.