Israel’s "national emergency government," forged in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, is on the verge of creating an even greater national emergency if its annexation plan for the West Bank is implemented, as expected, this summer. Only massive international pressure can stop it.
In teaming up with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Benny Gantz has not only reneged on his campaign pledge not to serve in a government headed by an indicted prime minister, but he also has caved to Netanyahu’s demands on annexation of Area C of the West Bank, against his previous, and better, judgment.
Last week, a group of 12 European ambassadors issued a formal protest to Israel over its plans. This week, a group of more than 30 former U.S. national security officials sent a letter to the Democratic National Committee urging the Democratic Party and presidential candidate Joe Biden to loudly oppose Israeli annexation of land in the West Bank. Meanwhile, the White House has indicated support for annexation provided Israel endorses Trump’s peace plan in its entirety.
Only sufficient countervailing pressure to offset the White House’s expected backing of annexation, particularly from Israel’s friends in the United States, can avert this looming disaster.
The government’s annexation plans may be in line with Trump’s "deal of the century," but they are antithetical to Israel’s national security interests. Indeed, senior members of the Israeli security community have sounded the alarm over the government’s plans, adding their voices to the criticism heard in recent weeks from former Israeli legislators and civil society groups and from the international community.
In early April, the Commanders for Israel’s Security placed ads in Israeli papers signed by 220 retired senior officials of the IDF, the Mossad, the Shin Bet, and the police urging Gantz and his number two, Gabi Ashkenazi, to refrain from unilateral annexation of any sort.
Three of these former top security officials followed up with an article in the journal Foreign Policy headlined, starkly, "Netanyahu’s Annexation Plan Is a Threat to Israel’s National Security." Their concerns include threatening Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, angering Israel’s allies in the Gulf, the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, and endangering Israel as a Jewish democracy.
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These veterans of Israel’s security establishment are not telling Gantz and Ashkenazi what they don’t already know. As former IDF chiefs themselves, they are every bit as aware of the dangers that annexation poses to Israel as their former IDF comrades. Personally, they oppose annexation. As political neophytes, however, they will need all the help they can get if they are to successfully stop the pending disaster.
Pressure, rather than persuasion, is the key to stopping Gantz and Ashkenazi from handing Netanyahu his annexation prize.
It is imperative that Israel’s friends in the United States understand that support for the two-state solution as a far superior alternative to annexation is a near-consensus among Israel’s high-ranking military and intelligence officials.
Neither Gantz nor Ashkenazi belongs to the miniscule pro-annexation group of senior IDF veterans. Even their former Blue and White "co-pilot" Moshe Ya’alon, the hawkish ex-IDF Chief who stands out in the security community for his skepticism of the two-state solution, has written that large-scale annexation would be a "grave mistake" which would undermine "Israel’s unshakable commitment to the preservation of the country’s Jewish and democratic character."
In April 2018, less than a year before his official entry into politics, Gantz told a group of Mexican Jews that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was Israel’s top national interest.
Six months later, both he and Ashkenazi endorsed the multi-authored strategic plan published by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), which promoted moves in the West Bank aimed at separating Israel from the Palestinians. Contra the annexation proposals of Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc, the INSS Plan recommended freezing construction in isolated settlements and incentivizing these settlers’ relocation to within the Green Line or to the larger blocs (expected to remain in Israel in a future agreement).
It warned of "a severe external national security threat in the form of a one-state reality, which would perforce be either non-Jewish or non-democratic."
In other words, the plan supported by Gantz and Ashkenazi recommended doing the opposite of the new government’s annexation agenda.
Yet, while the right has been aggressively pushing for annexation in recent years, the Blue and White party – the so-called "centrist alternative" – assiduously avoided this topic in each of its three election campaigns, turning them instead into a referendum, ironically, on Netanyahu’s political fate.
Gantz and Ashkenazi thus displayed their political cowardice well before their capitulation to Netanyahu in the recent coalition talks. Neither they nor their opportunistic Labor Party colleagues Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli can be counted on, therefore, to put the breaks on the government’s annexation plans, which Netanyahu views as the ticket to his political survival, if not his legacy.
Israel’s friends in the United States, where most Americans – primarily Democrats, but also younger Republicans – are eager to see different Israeli policies, can provide the moderate, pragmatic forces of the new government with the backing they need to secure Israel’s future.
By speaking out loudly enough for Jerusalem to take notice, they can thwart Netanyahu’s dangerous annexationist agenda and help Israel preserve its peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, the moderate Fatah-led Palestinian Authority with which Israel engages in vital security coordination, and the two-state solution that will end the occupation and preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.
Guy Ziv is an assistant professor of international relations at American University’s School of International Service. He is the author of "Why Hawks Become Doves: Shimon Peres and Foreign Policy Change in Israel.”"Twitter: @ZivGuy