America Must Tell Israel: Annexing the West Bank Is Our Red Line

Extending civil law to the settlements, as the justice minister is attempting, lays the legal groundwork for Israel to extend its permanent grip over the West Bank. Obama cannot remain silent.

Steve Klein
Steven Klein
A Palestinian walks past graffiti painted on the Israeli barrier in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, April 27, 2016. Picture taken April 27, 2016.
A Palestinian walks past graffiti painted on the Israeli barrier in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, April 27, 2016. Picture taken April 27, 2016.Credit: Ammar Awad, Reuters
Steve Klein
Steven Klein

Wake up Obama, it’s time for the U.S. to draw a red line.

Israel is in on the verge of sounding the death knell of the two-state solution. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is leading a renewed charge to apply Israeli civil law to the West Bank, a move that would indicate more than just “creeping annexation” but a fatal and irreversible change to the status quo.

Such a move would not constitute de jure annexation but rather de facto annexation. It is a step that the United States must oppose and prevent if it ever hopes to keep alive the prospect of a two-state solution.

Washington is often vulnerable in an election year. The USSR invaded Hungary in October 1956 knowing the Eisenhower administration would be unable to respond a week before Election Day. All the more so, a second-term president in his final year can be a lame duck when it comes to foreign policy. We cannot afford to wait.

Changing the legal status quo in the West Bank bears much graver consequences than when Israel extended civil law over East Jerusalem in 1967 and the Golan Heights in 1981. In fact, it would be reminiscent of the first U.S.-Israeli diplomatic crisis, when Israel changed the legal status quo in the Gaza Strip it occupied after the 1956 Sinai Campaign.

After that war, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion thought, perhaps justifiably, that just as the world had accepted Israel expanding its internationally recognized borders from the 1947 partition lines to the 1949 armistice lines, it could do the same in Gaza. Israel made the Israeli lira the only legal currency in Gaza in December, and Ben-Gurion declared in January 1957 that unlike Sinai, Israel would not be evacuating Gaza.

However, the United States did not accept this position, adhering to the principle of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war. Moreover, it considered Israel, along with Britain and France, as the aggressor in the conflict. Israel begged to differ, arguing that Egypt’s closure of the Straits of Tiran constituted a casus belli. Washington continuously pressured Jerusalem, even threatening sanctions, if it would not withdraw.

America won this battle of nerves, and Israel agreed to pull out in March 1957 after a six-month occupation after U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Foreign Minister Golda Meir came to a good faith agreement. According to this understanding, the United States pledged that if Israel would return to the 1949 armistice lines, America would consider any future closure of the Straits as a casus belli.

The United States honored that pledge in 1967. It did not pressure Israel to withdraw immediately after the Six-Day War from the territories it had captured following Egypt’s closure of the Straits of Tiran. But it was clear that Israel was not to annex the territories, which would have returned to situation to the post-1956 crisis, and it did not attempt to change the legal status quo in the West Bank or Gaza.

Since then, however, Israel has pushed back against the spirit of the Dulles-Meir agreement, applying civil law in East Jerusalem and the Golan, and settling hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews in the West Bank. In those cases, Arab residents were offered citizenship or permanent residency. The United States, meanwhile, has sufficed with verbal chidings of Israel, even as the prospects of a two-state solution have dwindled.

Shaked is taking matters in a much more dangerous direction. She wants to apply Israeli law in the settlements to “equalize” conditions for settlers with Israelis inside the pre-1967 lines without extending equal conditions, like labor laws, to Palestinians. Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett can parse words and rightfully claim that there is “a very big difference between annexation and equalizing legislation,” but everyone knows that extending civil law to the settlements lays the legal groundwork for Israel to extend its permanent grip over the West Bank.

President George W. Bush already made one irresponsible deviation from traditional U.S. policy when he legitimized the idea of Israel maintaining parts of the West Bank as part of negotiations. The message of America’s inaction or endorsement of Israeli policies in the West Bank have reinforced and emboldened Israeli leaders to believe that they can take one step after another. Now they believe that they can shift gears from creeping annexation to virtual annexation.

Thus, the Obama administration cannot wait for November. It must publicly draw a red line and remind Israel that changing the legal status quo in the West Bank violates a 60-year understanding that the United States intends Israel to uphold.

If he remains silent and Shaked succeeds in her mission, there won’t be any peace process left to fight for when the next president takes office in January.

Steven Klein is an editor at Haaretz and an adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University's International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. Follow him on Twitter: @stevekhaaretz

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