Diplomatic Pressure Mounts on Israel to Delay Annexation as Long as Possible

With German foreign minister's visit this week, international community sends message that pandemic is a particularly bad time to undermine regional stability

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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A view showing the Palestinian village of Nahalin on the left and the settlement of Betar Ilit, December 2019.
A view showing the Palestinian village of Nahalin on the left and the settlement of Betar Ilit, December 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

“Diplomacy in my view may best be defined as the art of delaying inevitable decisions as long as possible,” Nahum Goldmann, a longtime president of the World Jewish Congress, quipped 40 years ago. Or as French politician Henri Queuille put it, “There is no urgent political problem that the absence of a decision can’t resolve.”

With a similar mindset, various players in the international community seek to win support for a delaying strategy to counter Israel’s plans for annexing parts of the West Bank.

Haaretz’s interviews with diplomats from international organizations as well as countries reveal a common message. They’re focusing on convincing the Israeli and American governments that the current timing of moves toward annexation is the worst possible, undermining regional and global stability – in part due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Key players in the diplomatic efforts to delay an annexation are the United Nations and Germany, with the support of nearly all members of the European Union (though not Hungary) and the Arab League countries, especially Jordan and Egypt. Germany, considered one of Israel’s leading supporters at international organizations – and a gatekeeper of international law – adamantly opposes unilateral steps toward annexation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declarations on an annexation on July 1, in less than a month, have put Berlin in a major quandary. On July 1, Germany will be taking over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union and will be assuming the presidency of the UN Security Council. These two roles will require the Germans to choose between their allegiance to international law and UN resolutions on the one hand, and their historical commitment to Israel on the other.

Demonstrators protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to annex parts of the West Bank, in Tel Aviv, Israel June 6, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

At the end of May, Germany and the Palestinian Authority issued an exceptional joint statement saying that annexation of territory in the West Bank (and East Jerusalem) violates international law and damages prospects for a two-state solution. They underlined their commitment to a solution based on the pre-1967 borders and their support for an overall, negotiated agreement between Israel and the Palestinians based on UN resolutions.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas will visit both Israel and Jordan in the coming week. The visit is formally designed to let him get to know Israel’s new foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi of the Kahol Lavan party. But unofficially, the lightning visit is aimed at warning Israel against its annexation plans, which are slated to include all the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Maas is expected to ask Israel not to put Germany in the bad dilemma that this would present.

The German foreign minister is due to arrive in Israel on Wednesday and meet with Ashkenazi and other senior Israeli officials. He is then to hold a videoconference with the Palestinian leaders. That evening, he will fly to Jordan to discuss the same issues.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas addresses the media during a statement at the foreign ministry in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, June 3, 2020. Credit: AP

At the same time, the United Nations is striving to revive the Quartet of Middle East peacemakers – the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union – to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians on the annexation issue, with the help of Jordan and Egypt. In recent years, in the absence of a peace process, the Quartet’s involvement has waned.

The aim is identical to that of the Germans – try to buy as much time as possible before Israel takes steps linked to annexation. Russian officials have said they theoretically would be willing to cooperate with such an international initiative, and extensive talks have taken place in recent weeks to coordinate such an effort, so far without real success.

Following last month’s swearing-in of the new Israeli coalition government, several European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, sent Netanyahu messages of congratulations. Some of them also expressed opposition to annexation, again stressing the bad timing of such a move.

Demonstrators protest Netanyahu's plan to annex parts of the West Bank, in Tel Aviv, June 6, 2020.Credit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

European leaders have also told Netanyahu that an undermining of regional stability now, during the coronavirus pandemic, would be irresponsible.

Against the backdrop of this international pressure, many countries are gearing up to respond if Israel declares an annexation. As reported by Haaretz, EU officials are considering sanctions that do not require a consensus among the bloc’s 27 member states, such as blocking Israeli participation in cooperation agreements, and halting grants for Israeli research and higher education, which would inflict major damage on Israeli institutions and researchers.

Sanctions are also being considered at the level of direct relations between Israel and the countries, but no country is particularly eager to take such a route if there are alternatives.

Several diplomats have told Haaretz that an annexation would immediately trigger declarations and resolutions against the move by the United Nations, the European Union and the Arab League. With the exception of the United States, not many countries would recognize such a unilateral annexation, as was the case when Washington recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The real harm to Israel, the diplomats said, would not only be specific sanctions, if they were imposed, but renewed international scrutiny over the settlements. Currently, one senior diplomat noted, the United Nations and European Union distinguish between Israel proper and the settlements, making it possible to cooperate with Israel in a range of fields and only exclude the application of agreements to the settlements.

But if Israel declares them an inseparable part of its territory, this could put any cooperation with Israel in jeopardy even without a specific declaration regarding sanctions.

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