Wednesday, Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, flew to Israel on a delicate diplomatic mission. Maas warned that annexation of the West Bank would be incompatible with international law, but he was also at great pains to stress the "very special friendship" between the two countries. He declined to spell out any consequences.
Such schizophrenic statements by many European governments reveal the bind that countries find themselves in – torn between their immediate interests and the defense of international law. Last month, Israel’s new coalition government was enveloped in a fug of warm words from Germany, Austria and others, with promises of deepening relations, future cooperation, and annexation conspicuously absent. Which way will Europe turn?
West Bank annexation is hardly new, but until now, it has been deliberately incremental and ambiguous. Israel has already been de facto annexing for decades, by encouraging Jewish citizens of Israel to move to settlements there. Since 2015, Israel also began to apply its laws to the settlements on matters ranging from electricity to poultry, heralding the start of de jure annexation. Neither process was accompanied by fanfare.
As a result, Israel has been able to advance its territorial ambitions while preserving a veneer of democracy and diplomatic decorum.
Formal annexation without granting Palestinians citizenship would definitively create one legal space with unequal populations in terms of civil and political rights. In other words, apartheid, according to two former Israeli prime ministers, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak.
Instead of a state in waiting, comprised of Gaza and the West Bank, it would break the West Bank into disconnected Palestinian enclaves, punctuated by Jewish settlements – with Gaza kept apart.
Annexation would sound the death knell for the two-state solution and internationally agreed principles, and derail any prospect of a negotiated peace process – remote as those might be. A cascade of human rights abuses would flow from the decision, creating more evictions, displacements, land confiscations and settler violence.
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The European Union and its members have been weighing their response, which will be discussed by Europe’s foreign affairs ministers next Tuesday. One might expect sanctions in line with those imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea in 2014. But there is simply no political will. European countries enjoy strong economic and security ties with Israel, and view it as a strategic ally in the Middle East.
Europe is also inhibited by a profound discomfort with criticism of Israel, a result of the Holocaust and Europe’s history of anti-Semitic persecution – a discomfort that Netanyahu has skillfully manipulated.
Netanyahu has also successfully divided and conquered the EU, which takes its foreign policy decisions by consensus. He has cultivated alliances with some Central and Eastern European member-states, particularly Hungary. Thus, the EU-27 have found themselves hopelessly divided on the Israel-Palestine file, as illustrated by blocked statements at the EU Foreign Affairs Council and split votes at the UN General Assembly.
At the same time, formal annexation poses a threat to European interests, and broadly, the member-states recognize this. Annexation would erode international law and the rules-based order, upon which the European Union is founded, and it would greenlight the acquisition of occupied territory by force. It also kills off the notion of two states, which has been Europe’s doctrine, upheld at a high diplomatic and financial cost.
It could also have profound consequences for Europe’s own security. Eastern member-states worry that this could encourage Russia to push forward with its own territorial designs, at their expense. Europeans also fear annexation could destabilize the Middle East: Jordan’s King Abdullah has warned of "massive conflict," and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has already announced an end to civilian and security coordination with Israel, though the threat has yet to fully materialize.
Israel’s own defense establishment expects unrest across the Palestinian territory: the army and police have already founded a joint body to respond.
But an explosive reaction may be absent: after all, Israel is well-versed in stifling Palestinian protest, and Israel’s once hostile Arab neighbours will be reluctant to cast off their nascent relationship with Jerusalem.
Europe’s concerns for its own security, stability and principles mean that most member-states agree that there should beconsequences for Israel. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, released a statement opposing annexation, which received the backing of 25 member-states, with the notable exceptions of Hungary and Austria.
Borrell has warned that annexation “could not pass unchallenged”. However, the EU has repeatedly failed to intervene effectively on this conflict – parroting principles and red lines without acting to protect them. Europe’s passivity has allowed Israel to trample these very principles with impunity.
Again, Europe is stuttering, as the member-states argue with one another. Some want the EU to spell out consequences now, whilst others want to engage in a lengthy diplomatic exercise with the U.S. on its peace plan, to buy time, in the hope of a change in U.S. or Israeli government.
Europeans should not be drawn into engaging with the US on the plan: doing so will legitimize it and risk redrawing the contours of any future settlement. EU-wide sanctions are out of the question, as they require unanimity.
In one respect, the need for consensus could work to the EU’s advantage: deepening the EU-Israel relationship will become difficult, as all 27 need to consent to new agreements. The EU could consider suspending its Association Agreement with Israel, which is predicated upon respect for international law – and which, as a trade agreement, would not require unanimity.
There are other measures that Borrell can take without consensus. The EU should strengthen its policy of "differentiation" between Israel proper and the territories occupied after 1967, which excludes the settlements from the benefits of the EU-Israel bilateral relationship. Measures include labelling the origin of products, banning settlement entities from participating in EU research programs, and ensuring that goods from the settlements do not receive preferential treatment in European markets.
The EU should take serious steps towards achieving reconciliation between the PA in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza, which will be vital for Palestinian democracy.
Borrell must ensure that European aid to the PA is conditioned upon progress towards reconciliation with Hamas in Gaza, an end to punitive measures on the Gaza Strip, and democratic progress. He should also push to change Europe’s policy of no contact with Hamas: contact will be essential for supporting reconciliation and national elections.
Formal annexation will plunge Israel-EU relations into existential crisis. If Israel continues the march towards apartheid, the EU will have to prise its policy away from the cherished two-state solution, and towards a binational state, without a Jewish majority.
Whether Netanyahu is truly willing to test international patience and to mess with his winning formula for territorial expansion – all in the name of pleasing Israel’s far-right – remains to be seen.
Regardless of whether annexation becomes formal, Israel’s intentions are beyond doubt. Europe can no longer shroud Israel’s behavior in diplomatic obfuscation. It must act.
Beth Oppenheim is Director of International Relations at Gisha, an Israeli human rights NGO, based in Tel Aviv. She was formerly a Research Fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London, where she focused on EU policy in the Middle East. Twitter: @BethOppenheim