Israeli Annexation Explained: What Is Netanyahu Planning for the West Bank and What Does It Mean

Based on his agreement with Gantz, Netanyahu will be able to commence West Bank annexation plans on July 1. Will the U.S. require Israel to implement the less favorable parts of Trump’s Mideast plan as well, and what are the consequences for the Palestinians?

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a tree-planting ceremony in the Jordan Valley settlement of Mevo'ot Yericho, February 10, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a tree-planting ceremony in the Jordan Valley settlement of Mevo'ot Yericho, February 10, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

What exactly does “annexation” mean?

In general, the term “annexation,” or “applying sovereignty,” is a declaration that territories defined as occupied under international law become an integral part of the territory of the state annexing it – especially in terms of the law, jurisdiction and administration applicable to them. This replaces the military rule (“belligerent occupation,” to give it its official title) that applies under international law to occupied territories.

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This usually refers to a unilateral step taken by the occupying power, not a step reached through negotiation and peace agreements with the occupied party. For example, this is how the State of Israel annexed the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem – through unilateral moves accompanied by government decisions and Knesset legislation.

The vast majority of the international community never recognized these moves, until the current U.S. administration headed by President Donald Trump changed American policy on the issue and recognized Israeli sovereignty in both the Golan Heights and Jerusalem. However, Trump stressed that this recognition did not preclude future negotiations over the fate of these territories.

Now Netanyahu wants to declare – with U.S. backing – Israeli sovereignty over all of the Jewish settlements established in the West Bank since 1967, including the Jordan Valley. He has stated his intention to do this several times over the past three election campaigns. Initially, he focused on annexing the Jordan Valley, but later began to promise annexation of all the settlements in the West Bank, in accordance with the Trump Mideast Plan released in late January.

Credit: Reuters

What areas can be annexed under the Trump plan?

On paper, the Trump plan is based on the two-state solution and sketches out a distant future in which there will be a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. But in terms of the territory on which this Palestinian state would be established, it proposes the most limited and noncontiguous territory ever offered to the Palestinians by the international community. The administration’s guiding principle, according to Trump, is that “no Palestinians or Israelis will be uprooted from their homes.” As a result, the map accompanying the plan allows Israel to annex all the existing settlements, in addition to the areas surrounding them and access roads.

According to the U.S. administration, Israel would be annexing around 30 percent of the West Bank. However, based on the maps presented by Netanyahu and the administration, experts estimate it would actually be 20 percent. This is in addition to the “exchange of territories and populations” that appear in the plan in the Negev and Galilee area known as The Triangle. However, it isn’t clear if these will remain in the plan after they were so widely condemned in January.

It’s important to remember that a final, detailed map has yet to be published. The administration set up a joint Israeli-American committee, which has been working since the plan’s release to draw more precise borders. According to senior U.S. officials, that map is almost ready.

Haaretz poll: Where Israelis stand on possibly annexing the West Bank to Israel. Click here for full results from our March 2019 survey

In addition, ahead of the publication of the Trump plan, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced last year that the United States no longer defines the settlements as necessarily violating international law, and that Israel is free to define their legal status and the United States would recognize it.

Is annexation conditioned on Israeli acceptance of the whole plan, including a Palestinian state?

According to the Trump plan itself and senior U.S. officials, including Pompeo, Israeli annexation is dependent on acceptance of the entire plan, especially its agreement to conduct direct negotiations with the Palestinians for at least four years. During this period, Israel is asked to freeze all construction and demolitions in the territory earmarked for the Palestinian state, as well as possibly in other areas. The plan also includes the establishment of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem neighborhoods and the release of Palestinian prisoners.

All these clauses are vehemently opposed by the settler leadership, which sees the plan as a significant compromise on its “Greater Israel” vision. It is deliberating whether to support annexation in the hope that the rest will never come to fruition. The plan also includes a long list of conditions the Palestinians must fulfill. As U.S. Ambassador David Friedman put it, there would only be a Palestinian state “when the Palestinians become Canadians.”

However, while the U.S. administration has repeatedly stressed that Israel must accept the entire plan in order to annex, the committee drawing up the borders for annexation has already done a lot of work. In other words, practically speaking, both Israel and the United States are preparing to carry out a unilateral annexation. The argument is that since these territories will be Israeli in the future anyway according to Trump’s plan, and the Palestinians aren’t interested in negotiations, there is no impediment to annexing the territories in advance.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivering joint remarks on the Trump Middle East peace plan proposal in the White House, Washington, January 28, 2020.Credit: Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

The administration has expressed itself in conflicting voices on this issue, though. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who led the team that formulated the plan, tends to issue calming messages to the Arab world – to the effect that the plan is one piece. But Friedman issues reassuring messages to the Israeli right that annexation can take place separately.

When will it happen?

The Americans said recently that they’re prepared for annexation “within weeks.” Under the coalition agreement between Likud and Kahol Lavan, on July 1 – meaning in a month’s time – Netanyahu will be able to “bring the agreement reached with the United States on the issue of applying sovereignty to a debate in the security cabinet and the full cabinet, and for the approval of the cabinet and/or the Knesset.” On Monday, Netanyahu told a meeting of Likud’s Knesset faction, in response to an MK’s question, that “the target date for beginning annexation is July 1, and we don’t intend to change it.” He added that “this is an opportunity that can’t be missed.”

On the other hand, in all the coalition agreements, the substance of the exact agreement to be submitted for cabinet approval is deliberately vague. The coalition partners are totally subordinate to whatever agreement Netanyahu reaches with the U.S. administration, whether it involves annexation, delaying annexation, or partial or gradual annexation. In other words, it still isn’t clear how Netanyahu plans to present and implement the process.

A Palestinian demonstrator holding a poster decrying U.S. President Donald Trump in the Jordan Valley, West Bank, February 25, 2020.Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP

What might the consequences be of annexation in the West Bank?

Since 1967, Israel has taken many actions in the West Bank that are considered “creeping annexation” or “de facto annexation” – for example, the expansion of settlements and outposts, and their connection to Israel by infrastructures, along with restrictions on and demolition of Palestinian construction in Area C (the 60 percent of the West Bank under Israeli military control). The move under discussion would provide a legal framework for the reality on the ground, making it “de jure,” but would also deepen it.

First and foremost, it would be possible to replace the military administration with Israeli law and administration. In principle, today the army is the ultimate legal authority in the occupied territories, answering to the Defense Ministry. This is partially done through laws that existed in the area before the Israeli occupation. However, as part of the same “creeping annexation,” Israeli law basically already applies to the settlers themselves (but not to Palestinians living in the same areas). It’s possible that Israeli annexation would provide a legal basis for the existing situation, in which there are separate legal systems for Israelis and Palestinians, but it could also include applying Israeli law to many areas where Palestinians now live. Their number would depend on the final map.

The latter scenario raises some tough questions about these Palestinians’ status. Would Israel grant them citizenship? There could also be consequences for the Palestinian owners of annexed lands, who could lose their private property. According to Shaul Arieli, this would be 23 percent of the annexed land.

Haaretz's Bradley Burston on a tour in West Bank settlements with Daniella Weiss

Another issue is the Basic Law on Referendums, under which yielding land that is subject to Israeli law would require a Knesset majority of 80 lawmakers, or a public referendum. Until now, the West Bank wasn’t included in that law as Israeli law doesn’t officially apply there. Applying Israeli law to all or parts of the West bank would make it very difficult to make any future concessions as part of peace agreements, should there ever be any.

For these and other reasons, the left is warning that annexation would essentially bury the two-state solution and lead to a single state that will either endanger the Jewish identity of the State of Israel or will officially be an apartheid regime, with a separate and discriminatory legal system for Palestinians.

How has the world responded to possible Israeli annexation?

When Trump’s plan was released, most of the world at first supported in principle the notion of bring the two sides back to the negotiating table. But shortly afterward, when Israeli declarations regarding annexation gained steam, most countries expressed strong opposition to any unilateral move – and this is the prevailing line of thought in the international arena at the moment. Most countries have noted that unilateral Israeli annexation would be a violation of international law and would be the end of the two-state solution and with it the prospect of Palestinian national self-determination.

A general map showing the Jordan Valley annexation plan.Credit: Shaul Arieli

The European Union is leading the global opposition on this issue, along with Jordan, which would suffer concrete damage from the annexation of the Jordan Valley. Most countries in the Muslim world are also standing by Jordan and the Palestinians. Earlier this month, after the new Israeli government was formed, EU member states started discussing possible sanctions against Israel in the event that it annexes the settlements.

Would Europe really impose sanctions on Israel?

Like every foreign policy decision by the EU, most official sanctions on Israel would require a unanimous consensus among member nations. In recent years, the EU hasn’t managed to reach consensus on almost anything, including the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. Countries like Hungary and Austria, which are considered close to the Netanyahu government, have repeatedly blocked anti-Netanyahu resolutions and decisions.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaking during a press conference in Budapest, January 9, 2020.Credit: AFP

But there are punitive steps that don’t require such a consensus – first and foremost kicking Israel out of trade agreements, grants or cooperative ventures. These are the purview of the European Commission, not the EU foreign ministers. There are several agreements now on the agenda in the realms of research and education that could deprive Israel of academic and scientific resources if it is denied participation, even if not officially as a sanction. Other sanctions could include intensifying the settlement differentiation policy, for example by marking products manufactured in the settlements. In addition, each EU country can decide to take its own steps against Israel without consulting other countries.

However, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has stressed repeatedly that the path to sanctions has a long way to go. The wheels in Brussels move slowly and diplomatically, out of a belief that it is important to keep the channels to Jerusalem open and preserve whatever influence is possible.

What does Kahol Lavan have to say about all this?

As noted, Kahol Lavan signed the agreement that allows Netanyahu to submit an annexation plan for cabinet or Knesset approval. It has also committed not to interfere with any related legislative processes in Knesset committees. In recent days, party Chairman Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi have been careful to express support for the Trump plan in its entirety, and not for unilateral Israeli annexation steps divorced from the plan’s other components.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi in Jerusalem, May 13, 2020.Credit: Matty Stern / U.S. Embassy Jerus

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