Analysis |

Netanyahu’s Annexation Throws 72 Years of Israeli Diplomacy Down the Drain

The proposed land grab undermines long-held support for direct talks, opposition to unilateral actions and efforts to refute analogies with apartheid South Africa

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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An Israeli soldier stands guard at the Tapuach junction next to the West Bank city of Nablus, June 30, 2020.
An Israeli soldier stands guard at the Tapuach junction next to the West Bank city of Nablus, June 30, 2020.Credit: Oded Balilty/AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Throughout its existence, Israel has tried to capture the moral high ground: Its cause is virtuous, intentions pure and actions righteous, if not always perfect. In the balance sheet of international codes of morality, Israel’s bottom line is in the black while its enemies wallow perpetually in the red. Justice is on Israel’s side.

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Unlike its adversaries, Israel yearns for true peace. The only way to achieve peace is through direct negotiations, rather than by superpower intervention, which Arabs and Palestinians are forever courting. Peace can only be achieved when two sides reach agreement; unilateral actions that change the status quo are, by definition, the polar opposite of peace.

The 53-year-old occupation is a necessary evil mandated by the refusal of the Palestinians to make peace. They are the main perpetrators of their dismal predicament. Israel, on the other hand, is a stellar democracy – the only one in the Middle East! – that grants full equality to all its citizens, regardless of their identity or origin. Israel abhors apartheid and anyone who claims otherwise is an antisemite.

This has been the official line since Israel was established. These were the core principles of Israeli hasbara as these PR efforts have been formulated and disseminated for decades by government ministries, submitted as official talking points to foreign leaders and diplomats, adopted and promoted by Jewish lobbies, organizations and NGOs, cited and hammered home in countless debates, forums, prayer services and private conversations. This was the truth, the only truth and nothing but the truth.

Critics and enemies may have disparaged the official Israeli stance but were nonetheless awed by its efficacy. For more than half a century Israel has imposed martial law on millions of Palestinians, deprived them of basic civil rights, transferred hundreds of thousands of Jews to what the world views as territories acquired by force, while maintaining and often improving its international stature. Israel’s supposed principles buttressed supporters, frustrated antagonists and kept foreign governments at bay.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and his Israeli counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi, at a press conference in Jerusalem, June 10, 2020.Credit: Menahem Kahana / AFP

Uncreative destruction

Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation plan, if implemented, will demolish the very foundations of Israel’s hasbara efforts. It undermines each and every contention of Israel’s hitherto successful propaganda campaigns. It undercuts supporters and empowers opponents. It takes 73 years of hasbara efforts and pours them down the drain.

Netanyahu’s annexation is unilateral action based on foreign-power intervention in the form of President Donald Trump’s one-sided U.S. “peace plan.” Whether it’s dubbed plainly as annexation or goes under the euphemistic Israeli version of “applying Israeli law,” Netanyahu’s land grab doesn’t only discard the principle of direct negotiations, it’s proceeding as if the Palestinians hardly existed.

Annexation is a policy of belligerence unbecoming of a country that professes to pursue peace. It’s the diplomatic equivalent of unprovoked aggression, one of the staple Israeli accusations against its neighbors. Rather than proving the wisdom and prudence Israel has always boasted of, annexation is provocative, reckless and dangerous; its ramifications could range from international condemnation to a breakdown of regional stability to an outburst of violence, bloodshed and death.

Annexation negates efforts to portray Israel as a responsible member of the free world and international community. It casts Israel as a rogue state that defies not only public opinion but international law as well. With annexation on its record, Israel will be more hard-pressed to deny the encroaching jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

An Israeli woman holds a sign during a protest against annexation in Tel Aviv, June 23, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Netanyahu’s assertion that Israeli law would not apply to Palestinian residents of annexed territories subverts Israeli assertions of its perfect democracy. It draws attention to its less-than-perfect record in extending equal rights to Palestinians living in annexed East Jerusalem. It sabotages the campaign to rebuff comparisons with South Africa; Netanyahu’s annexation scheme bears an undeniable resemblance to apartheid and to so-called Bantustans where black people were allowed an “autonomy” similar to what Netanyahu and the Israeli right envisage for Palestinians.

Annexation is a slap in the face for advocates who have been propagating the soon-to-be-anachronistic official line – and a boon for all those who have been trying to counter it. Annexation forces friends and allies to choose between defending the indefensible and abandoning Israel in its time of need. It requires them to square Israel’s traditional image with a reckless move that clearly undermines it.

Troubling numbers

Annexation may not be the uppermost thing on the minds of most American Jews these days, but it will nonetheless entrench the wedge that’s already driving Israel and the liberal bulk of U.S. Jewry apart. Conservatives and right-wingers may rally around Netanyahu’s annexation banner, but more moderate supporters will be further disillusioned and those that have already started to stray will be pushed away completely.

Annexation will accelerate the distancing of the Democratic Party from Israel, giving aid and succor to its more radical anti-Israeli wing. According to a University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll conducted in March by Director Shibley Telhami, who is also affiliated with the Brookings Institution, the situation is already dire for official Israel. In the survey, 71 percent of Democrats dislike Trump’s “deal of the century,” viewing it as too favorable to Israel; 69 percent consider Jewish settlements illegal; and 79 percent oppose their annexation.

If Netanyahu makes good on his pledges, the troubling numbers are bound to grow even further. Thumbing Israel’s nose at the Democrats on the eve of elections in which they’re currently heavy favorites to win is a gamble no previous Israeli leader would dare make.

Israelis, unfortunately but understandably, are too preoccupied with the double whammy of the coronavirus and an economic depression to care much. They are dangerously disinterested in annexation and woefully uninformed about its potential intended and unintended consequences. The minority that views annexation as a biblical imperative is willing to pay the price but the indifferent majority is clueless. If and when things go south for Israel, they won’t know what hit them, or why.

Only a small minority views annexation as an evil in and of itself, a crime that will leave an indelible stain not only on Israel’s image but on its very soul. They’re less concerned about Israel undercutting its own propaganda, garnering international condemnation or, in a worst-case scenario, turning into a pariah state. Annexation for them is the original sin for which Israel will be rewarded with the punishment it deserves.

As Martin Luther King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” After annexation, it will bend away from Israel.

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