Wednesday was supposed to be a historic moment for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the settler right – the first major shift in the geopolitical status quo since the Oslo Accords and the first time Israel has formally annexed land since 1967.
The fireworks haven’t gone off yet, and the celebrations are being downgraded. The likelihood that annexation will mean a far-reaching and magnificent extension of Israeli sovereignty over Greater Israel now seems increasingly unlikely, thanks to contentious domestic coalition politics.
But we can’t confuse this resizing of the annexation plan with it fizzling out altogether. In fact, the excuses, "compromises" and delays are aimed at softening our vigilance, diffusing our voices, weakening our resistance, making us think that maybe it’s not so bad, or maybe that annexation won’t even happen.
Benjamin Netanyahu knows this game of distraction and delay incredibly well, finding ways to turn the unfathomable and indigestible into something we can swallow with a slight grimace. We can’t let him win that game; we must instead proactively debunk the misleading justifications that he and his allies will continue to roll out over the coming days, or weeks, with facts.
First, Netanyahu and his supporters are likely to claim annexation is "just declarative." It’s a bureaucratic matter, they will explain – a declaration of Israeli law, not of sovereignty, so it’s purely procedural. However, de jure annexation is, by definition, declarative. What is "just words" has legal force and, in the years to come, could lead to Palestinians losing their homes and land, while concurrently aiding settlement expansion.
The Israeli government has already tried this trick of hiding behind "bureaucracy": in 1967, Israel annexed East Jerusalem, claiming it was only the application of law and was for the purpose of "municipal fusion." But the application of law and of sovereignty are, for all practical purposes, the same.
This is clear enough from the case of East Jerusalem, where the implications of annexation have been severe. We must assert that unilateral annexation, no matter what language is used, will have real consequences on the ground.
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Secondly, annexation apologists are likely to downplay its gravity by arguing that the amount of land being annexed is not extreme enough to warrant opposition. The Trump Plan is "only" 30 percent of the West Bank, they will claim. And given that it is in Israel’s interest to annex slowly in order to avoid international backlash, the percentage of the West Bank annexed this summer may be in the low single digits.
The right may tell us that such small numbers are no big deal, that these are blocs of territory that would become part of Israel anyway through final status negotiations – yet even the smallest annexation undermines the idea that acquisition of territory by force is not acceptable to the international community.
When Russia annexed Crimea, nobody asked what percentage it was of Ukraine’s land. The United States and the European Union imposed sanctions because the point was not the exact percentage of territory but the harm of annexation ipso facto.
Policy makers realized that if there were no consequences for the annexation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin would have no reason not to annex more land. The same is true today: if Israel annexes even a small bit of the West Bank and faces no consequences, the government will have no reason not to continue annexation in the years to come.
Just like settlement expansion has been implemented slowly, hilltop by hilltop, avoiding significant censure but completely transforming the West Bank, so too is annexation likely to be carried out gradually but drastically. Unless there is meaningful resistance, small-scale annexation is Netanyahu’s best path to large-scale annexation.
In particular, this summer’s annexation may be of settlements alone. The annexationist camp will be quick to point out that the jurisdictional areas of settlements are only about 9.5 percent of the West Bank and settlements’ built-up areas are only about 1.5 percent Why wring our hands about such small numbers, especially regarding communities that are already Israeli?
The annexation of settlements, however, is even more nefarious than Crimea-style annexation. Settlements’ locations are not set by happenstance. They are intentionally situated in order to fragment Palestinian territory and thus prevent the viability of a future Palestinian state. By ensuring that Palestinian communities will "be cut off by Jewish settlements," to use the words of a 1979 Israeli settlement planning document, "it will be hard for the minority population [Palestinians] to create territorial contiguity and political unity."
Annexing settlements thus does not only uphold the status quo but solidifies a system designed to prevent Palestinian sovereignty.
Netanyahu may try to convince us that the opposite is true ,and that the remaining territory is the basis for a "realistic" Palestinian state as proposed by the Trump Plan. We need to explain why unilateral action before negotiations is deeply destructive and, further, that the reality that Netanyahu and Trump have offered is apartheid – nothing else.
They may fancy attaching the word "state" to the remaining territory, but an area under permanent Israeli security control with no control over its borders, water or airspace is not "sovereign" in any meaningful sense of the word.
Lastly, pro-annexation apologists may claim that annexation is acceptable because Palestinians who are annexed will receive legal rights and status, as Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz has proposed. This, however, would still be apartheid in nature because Palestinians outside of the annexed territory will remain under Israeli control without receiving rights (and they will suffer particular damage in terms of their freedom of movement and access to land.)
Further, very few Palestinians (or none at all, according to Netanyahu) will be included in the annexed territory because Israel is likely to draw the boundaries around Palestinian communities in order to avoid absorbing Palestinian populations that would potentially undermine Israel’s Jewish political majority.
Drawing the borders in order to exclude one group (in this case, Palestinians) from receiving political rights was exactly the South African model of Bantustans under the apartheid government: black South Africans were confined to ten zones, which the government facetiously referred to as "autonomous" in order to explain why residents did not receive South African citizenship.
Israel is now trying the same trick with Palestinians – confining them to small, fragmented unannexed pieces of land, continuing to rule the entire territory while falsely claiming that Palestinians in unannexed areas will have a state.
The world called South Africa’s bluff when that country referred to the Bantustans as autonomous. We must make sure the same is true today.
Those making excuses for annexation are playing the game of justifying apartheid. For those of us who care about equal civil and political rights for Israelis and Palestinians, however, the question should instead be about the facts of the matter. And the fact is that the occupation is a brutal system of control that annexation would only make more severe.
The situation is too grave to let pro-annexation leaders convince the world that such a reality is palatable, legal and inevitable. We must be prepared to tell the truth, to fight annexation, and to continue our fight until the occupation ends.
Maya Rosen works in international relations for Breaking the Silence