Opinion |

Netanyahu’s Irrational Case for Annexation Is a Tragedy for Israel

Netanyahu fancies himself a grand strategist. But his annexation argument rests on blind faith that the worst consequences won’t happen. Israel doesn’t have that margin of error

Mark A. Heller
Mark A. Heller
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem. June 14, 2020
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem. June 14, 2020Credit: POOL/ REUTERS
Mark A. Heller
Mark A. Heller

There is something bizarre about the Israeli debate over annexation of some/much/most of the territory in the West Bank.

After all, rational debates about policy choices on critical national issues should be grounded in calculations of cost and benefit. Reasonable people can reasonably differ about how great or small the foreseeable costs and benefits are, but they must at least attempt a relative calculus before coming to conclusions and recommendations. That, at least, is what theories of sound decision-making dictate.

It is therefore regrettable and even tragic that the current debate is missing half the equation, because it is entirely about costs and not at all about benefits.

Advocates of unilateral action, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, insist that the foreseeable costs of asserting sovereignty, applying Israeli law, or acting on some other euphemism for annexation, are lower than they have been up until now and lower than they are likely to be going forward. The Trump Administration is indifferent if not supportive (as long as the annexation is woven into the cloak of Trump’s "deal of the century" and not undertaken as an isolated act). Besides, America is fully preoccupied with domestic upheavals, and it, along with the rest of the world, is distracted by the coronavirus and anyway exhausted by the Palestinian issue.

These circumstances, pro-annexationists insist, provide "an unprecedented opportunity" that must not be missed.

Skeptics and critics of annexation proposals counter that the costs that pro-annexation forces tend to downplay may actually turn out be much higher.

First of all, Trump will only be president until January 2025, and perhaps only until January 2021, and Israeli action rejected by others may alienate Democratic sympathies, destroy what is left of bipartisan support for Israel in the U.S., and result in the further distancing of younger and more liberal American Jews.

Moreover, some European states may well act on their stated hostility to annexation. Egypt may abrogate its peace treaty with Israel, or at least empty it of any content. King Abdullah of Jordan may be forced to act on his warning that annexation would precipitate massive conflict. Gulf states may feel obliged to terminate their creeping normalization of relations with Israel. Iran may find a new and more effective lever to extend its influence in the region (or at least accelerate its threatening behavior, even in the nuclear realm, while everyone is looking elsewhere).

Most immediately, the Palestinian Authority may not only end any remaining cooperation with Israel that it has not already cut off; it could actually disestablish itself and throw the entire burden of day-to-day welfare and security (including the fight against Hamas) back onto the shoulders of Israeli soldiers and taxpayers, rather than leaving them on the shoulders of Palestinian institutions paid for by European taxpayers.

A concrete barrier with a warning against entering into an Israeli military live fire zone in the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank June 13, 2020Credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/ REUTERS

Even more worrisome is the risk that Palestinians may respond to Israel’s "provocation" by spontaneously launching a widespread wave of unrest and violence. Most worrisome of all is the risk that Palestinians may just throw up their hands in despair, renounce any demand for separate political expression, and demand Israel annexation of all the territory and absorption into the Israeli body politic.

Defenders of democracy anywhere would be hard-pressed to justify refusal of that demand, or even just Netanyahu’s intention to withhold Israeli citizenship from the relatively few Palestinians who could come under Israeli jurisdiction in the “modest” annexation scenarios currently under consideration.

These are all possibilities. In fact, no one can accurately assess the probability that these risks will actually materialize, much less judge the intensity of the challenge they might present. In other words, the long-term or even near-term costs of annexation cannot be predicted, notwithstanding the self-confidence with which advocates and critics argue their case. After all, such assessments include large dollops of speculation, often colored by the ideological preferences of the observers.

What is indisputable, however, is that some cost does exist. It may be minimal, moderate or severe, but it is undoubtedly greater than zero: on a scale of ten, we can place it somewhere between one and nine.

Does it matter where? Why risk any cost at all? A rational policy analysis would answer that the potential benefit outweighs the potential risk. But this is precisely where the pro-annexation fails, because it cannot identity any tangible benefits at all.

Hezbollah supporters in Lebanon chant slogans during a funeral ceremony rally to mourn Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, killed in a U.S. air strike at Baghdad airport. January 5, 2020Credit: Aziz Taher/ REUTERS

Those whose opinion is being fought over are never told what Israel gains from annexation – not from control of the Jordan Valley or the whole of the West Bank (whose military/security value is undeniable but whose benefit Israel already enjoys), not from recognition/stabilization of the eastern border (because no one except Israel will accept the legitimacy of unilateral action), not even from the regularization of the status of Israeli settlers (who are already Israelis citizens, subject to Israeli civilian law and enjoying Israeli economic, educational and welfare benefits, Israeli purpose-built infrastructure, and Israeli protection, but who will remain "settlers" in the eyes of the rest of the world and can have their status legitimized only by agreement with the Palestinians).

Will others really reconcile themselves to the legality or legitimacy of a new situation that they oppose just because Israel declares it?

In brief, Israel gains nothing material from unilateral annexation that it does not already have. There is no added value here, no material improvement over the status quo.

It is no great consolation to concede that the actions of many other countries have also been driven by such urges and have abandoned prudence, which Hans J. Morgenthau, the preeminent theorist of political realism, called "the supreme virtue in politics." Although most of these countries enjoyed a wider margin of error than does Israel, their deviation from the path of prudence sometimes exposed them to huge tragedies. Does anything apart from blind faith promise to protect Israel from similar results?

The current debate on annexation is about politics, not policy. It focuses solely on costs but refrains from specifying benefits – almost certainly because there are none. Prime Minister Netanyahu fancies himself a grand strategist as well as a master politician. If that is true, then he owes himself, as well as the public he serves, a proper debate based on serious strategic analysis, something that goes far beyond the simple-minded dictum that "we should do it because we can."

And if no persuasive strategic logic springs quickly to mind, then he should exploit the grace period until July 1 to read Barbara Tuchman, or at least to reconsider the issue before he drags Israel on a great leap forward in the march of folly.

Mark A. Heller is Principal Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University

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