Should Liberal Zionists Reclaim Annexation From the Right?

Could an idea long associated with Israel's right - annexation of the West Bank's Area C - be reclaimed by liberal Zionists as a creative alternative if the peace talks fail?

Sara Yael Hirschhorn
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Sara Yael Hirschhorn

In a muggy summer of overheated expectations on the part of the Obama administration, one wonders if U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry would have been better off puddle-jumping to Nantucket for a weekend of windsurfing rather than shuttling between Washington and Israel/Palestine as the latest round of peace negotiations opened this week. If the former Senator has been lampooned by the American satire webzine The Onion as the “The man who could not even devise a way to beat George W. Bush…will bring a peaceful resolution to the most intractable global conflict of the modern era,” his illustrious career and skillful diplomacy has seemingly been enlisted in a fool’s errand in the Middle East.

If there seems little interest by the primary partners in the latest U.S.-sponsored and subsidized suicide mission to bring about two states for two people, if (and likely when) these negotiations fail, what alternatives will be left for those who consider themselves liberal Zionists?

One policy that deserves further attention has been on the table since 1967: Annexation. In the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War, Israeli leadership entertained a debate in the Knesset about the legal status of the newly conquered territories. While a decision was quickly reached to unilaterally annex parts of the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, different consideration was given to the vexing problem in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula: Annexation would require absorbing over one million Palestinians under Israeli control. Prime Minister Levi Eskol famously quipped to Golda Meir that “the dowry pleases you but the bride does not,” joining Moshe Dayan in proposing the “Palestinian option” to accord these areas special (if undefined) status. While it would have surely been catastrophic to nascent Palestinian national aspirations, the decision not to formally annex the territories in 1967 helped give rise to the so-called “accidental empire” in the occupied territories today.

While once a policy discussed and adopted by Israeli leaders across the political spectrum, annexation after 1967 became fertile terrain solely for settler activists and the Israeli far right. But this fringe idea is now feted in the mainstream — most notably, through leading advocate and Habayit Hayehudi MK and faction leader Naftali Bennett’s marketing of his 2012 Israel Stability initiative, which argues for the annexation of part or all of region of territory in the West Bank known as Area C. This landmass, one of three jurisdictions within the West Bank created in the Oslo II Accord that reflects relative demographic distribution between Israelis and Palestinians (Areas A and B include large Palestinian population centers which Israel shares or devolves oversight to the Palestinian Authority) is controlled solely by Israel, comprises approximately 60% of the territory of the West Bank, geographically encompasses all Israeli settlements, and domiciles more than 300,000 Israeli settlers and 150,000 Palestinians according to a 2011 United Nations report (although estimates vary).

In the absence of a peace agreement and the looming inevitability of a one-state solution, must the annexation option be abandoned to the right - or is there any means or motivation for liberal Zionists to stake a claim to this policy?

There is a case to be made on either side of the Green Line. Annexing parts of Area C — preferably corresponding to concessions outlined in the Clinton parameters that would relinquish upwards of 92% of all the occupied territories as well as significant strategic and infrastructural control to the Palestinians — would end the occupation at long last, bring the settlers “home” into territorial Israel and its legal system (as a friend and colleague international lawyer Akiva Miller recently noted to me, “Is the continuation of martial law over a portion of Israel’s citizenry a-liberal? You bet,”) and allow Israel to finally emerge from its international pariah status and to concentrate on pressing domestic concerns.

Daily control over most of the Palestinian populace would be lifted, a harsh military-legal apparatus dismantled, and the polity in most of the West Bank and the entirety of the Gaza Strip finally free to build its own government, economy, and civil society as a sovereign state. No longer would either population be ruled by an occupier: both Israel and Palestine could be freed of this yoke for the first time since 1967.

Yet, wither the Palestinian population embedded within Area C that could be unilaterally annexed to the State of Israel? There are no easy, persuasive, or firmly liberal Zionist answers on the grounds of morality or legality to this dilemma. A utilitarian rationale might hold that the immense sacrifice of a smaller group of individuals would be justifiable — if not imperative — to end the occupation and allow the vast majority of Palestinians to have a state in the absence of other viable alternatives.

Meanwhile, the status of this group would be elevated from a stateless constituency with limited rights to full Israeli citizenship, akin (as Miller also argued) to Israeli-Arabs since 1948 who live within Israel but retain Palestinian nationality. Yet, it is undeniably that this group would be deprived of all autonomy in any unilateral annexation — a price that is likely too high for both liberal Zionists and Palestinians.

Nearly 50 years since 1967, it may be too late for the left and center to liberate annexation from other political forces. To be clear, I do not necessarily support the implementation of this policy, even in the absence of peace negotiations, yet I believe it is necessary for liberal Zionists to reclaim the debate around this idea — if not the territory itself — from the sole dominion of the Israeli right. Unless both Israelis and Palestinians across the political spectrum are willing to consider creative and uncommon solutions to the conflict, like annexation, both Zionist and Palestinian dreams are likely to be relegated to the “annex” of history.

Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn is the incoming University Research Lecturer/Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel Studies at the University of Oxford.  Her research, teaching, and public engagement activities focus on the Israeli settler movement, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the relationship between the U.S./American Jewry and Israel.  She is working on a forthcoming book about American Jews and the Israeli settler movement. 

Map of Area C and Area B near Amona.Credit: Haaretz

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