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Israel’s Illusion of Annexation Is a Hopeless Adventure

Shlomo Avineri
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A view of the West Bank settlement of Ma'ale Efraim on the hills of the Jordan Valley, on Tuesday, February 18, 2020.
A view of the West Bank settlement of Ma'ale Efraim on the hills of the Jordan Valley, on Tuesday, February 18, 2020.Credit: Ariel Schalit,AP
Shlomo Avineri

Supporters of annexation seize on two systems of reasoning that they use interchangeably; one is the security-strategic system and the other is ideological. The security reasoning argues that in light of the country’s narrow 1967 borders, Israel must ensure a security presence in the West Bank, especially in the Jordan Valley.

This is a legitimate reason, valid also now, despite the current weakness of Arab countries and the slim chances of achieving any significant negotiations for a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Still, Israel de facto controls these territories, and annexing the West Bank or any part of it will not improve its situation; on the contrary.

Israel has managed to maintain a complicated status quo for decades despite two intifadas and not-so-simple security coordination with the Palestinian Authority, which has protected Israel’s interests and provided security also for its citizens living on the other side of the Green Line.

The effort to maintain this situation hasn’t been easy and entails political and moral costs, but the current relative calm is proof of Israel’s success. Annexing the West Bank or any parts of it won’t add anything to Israel’s security and won’t provide the settlers with any personal security beyond what currently exists; instead it would put the current situation at risk. This is the message that all branches of the defense establishment are conveying to the government and indirectly to the public, and it’s hard to disagree with it.

As Chuck Freilich noted in Haaretz last week, an annexation will deteriorate the situation in the West Bank, force Israel into further huge investments in security costs, intensify hostility among the Palestinians and not contribute to security. Palestinian terrorism will increase and no matter how tough Israel’s responses are, the army is likely to pay a price in fatalities.

In short: Annexation isn’t necessary from a security standpoint and would end the current calm, which is the best possible situation in the absence of negotiations or an agreement with the Palestinians.

Even our friends oppose

The second reasoning for annexation is ideological – achieving the vision of a Greater Land of Israel, whether a divine vision or a secular nationalist goal. Adherents to this ideology totally ignore that Israel’s status and power don’t exist in a vacuum but depend on an international system where every country – and certainly a modest-sized country like Israel – must consider and win the collective’s support.

We can’t ignore that annexing territory as a result of wartime conquest – even in a defensive war – is not acceptable today among the countries of the world, and even Israel has accepted this based on Security Council Resolution 242. No country in the world would agree to a unilateral annexation of the West Bank or any part of; it’s not a complete coincidence that even President Donald Trump’s plan links the annexation option to negotiations with the Palestinians and even the possibility of the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Vladimir Putin’s unilateral occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014 stoked a deep crisis between Russia and the West and to a great extent ended the thaw in international relations after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The United States and European Union imposed extreme sanctions that severely damaged Russia’s economy. What the international system won’t allow a power like Russia it certainly won’t allow a country like Israel.

Some EU positions on Israel can be justifiably criticized, but one should remember that even our best friends around the world won’t agree to a unilateral annexation. Let there be no illusions: Any act of annexation, great or small, will bring a deluge of criticism down on Israel from the entire world (even President Trump’s position isn’t entirely clear).

Even if the EU doesn’t impose direct sanctions on Israel, we can’t ignore the possibility that several countries in Europe – and perhaps in Latin America or Africa – would respond to annexation by recognizing a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. So far they have eschewed any such step. Is this what Israel’s right wing wants to see?

The problem is that some ideological supporters of annexation are totally ignorant of the international system. They stew in their own juice, speak only with each other and consider anyone who opposes their views antisemitic. If any Israeli dares criticize them, the critic is condemned as a traitor. Their ignorance screams to the heavens.

Ideologists on the right maintain, for example, that David Ben-Gurion erred by agreeing to partition in 1948. First, it wasn’t Ben-Gurion’s decision but that of an overwhelming majority of the Zionist movement. Second, why would anyone presume that if Ben-Gurion rejected partition in ’48, a Jewish state would have immediately arisen in all the territory of British Mandatory Palestine? What planet do these people live on?

The evangelical card

False messianism has cost the Jewish people a great deal throughout history. Relying on the support of evangelical Christians, especially in the United States, is an example of historical and moral blindness on the part of many on the Israeli right.

The dire results of a unilateral annexation, including a destabilization of the West Bank and deteriorating relations with Jordan, Egypt and moderate Arab countries, doesn’t really interest the evangelicals. On the contrary, if after annexation events in the Middle East escalated to bloodshed, this would jibe with their vision of Armageddon – and put Israel in a tough spot.

Then – or so the evangelicals are sure – all Jews would see the light and finally recognize the man from Nazareth as the Messiah. The evangelicals really do love us. They would love us even more if we all converted to Christianity and thereby brought about, in their view, the Second Coming of Jesus and the final Redemption.

The cruel irony is that some people on the right, including on the fringes of religious Zionism, choose this twisted path in exchange for a Faustian deal with the evangelicals in return for their support for the annexation of Judea and Samaria – an approach showing that some people have learned nothing from history.

Similar things can be said about relations between the Israeli government and Trump: It’s clear that any Israeli government must safeguard its relations with Washington, including all its branches (Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t exactly behave that way in the Obama era), but we must also maintain a certain distance and sense of perspective.

It’s hard to know where the United States is headed. Under the current circumstances, Trump may not win a second term. On the other hand, he may actually be reelected and America will continue on its slippery slope toward situations where few imagined the country of Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt would wind up.

In any case, identifying with Trump and all he represents isn’t exactly a recipe for improving Israel’s security and standing in the world. Standing by Trump against the entire democratic world isn’t exactly a Jewish Zionist dream come true.

Israel must – and it doesn’t matter under which government – weigh its steps based on pragmatic and rational considerations to ensure its security and prosperity. It must not get dragged into ideological extremism that distances it from world support and the support of parts of the Jewish people.

This is all the more true as Israel faces the tough challenge of reviving its economy after the coronavirus crisis. The current Israeli government is a mixed bag: We must hope that its voices of wisdom will triumph over the ideological extremism that views Israel and the Jews as a people that shall dwell alone.

Sovereign Israel is part of the world, and this support is vital to its security and existence. Undermining and destabilizing the current situation, which even in the absence of an agreement is acceptable enough for Israel despite the complications, would be an irresponsible adventure.

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