Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said following the UN Security Council resolution against the settlements that we should talk about annexation – so let’s talk about annexation. Let’s try to identify the moment when Israel gave up on the two-state solution and laid the foundations for one state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. The moment when it was decided to join most of the West Bank to Israel and leave the Palestinians in an enclave surrounded by settlers and soldiers.
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I remember that moment well. It was July 25, 2000, at the end of the Camp David summit, where the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected Ehud Barak’s proposal for an agreement. “We have no partner at this time,” Barak summarized the failed summit. On the flight back to Israel I asked him about the third phase. “It will die a natural death,” Barak said, and went back to his entourage at the front of the plane.
The “third phase” was meant to be the final phase of the Oslo Accords, in which Israel would withdraw from the remaining territories it held, except for the settlements and “specific military positions.” The Palestinians had imagined an extensive withdrawal from 90 percent of the West Bank, with only the settlements, which were much smaller than they are now, and army camps remaining in Israel’s hands until a permanent status agreement.
Israel saw things entirely differently. Prime ministers Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been in office during the Oslo Accords, focused their policy on dissolving and postponing the third phase. Netanyahu opposed (and still does) the evacuation of any territory, and Barak wanted to keep the “territorial assets” in Israel’s hands until a final status solution, on the assumption that in exchange Israel would receive concessions from the Palestinians.
Each of them acted in a different way, according to their own political exigencies. Netanyahu with his rejectionism and friction with the United States administration, and Barak with his “generous” offers that the Palestinians did not consider acceptable. But they enjoyed American support. The outcome was the same: The third phase was taken off the agenda completely and any territorial change in the West Bank was postponed until the “final status,” that is, until the messiah comes.
When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon evacuated the settlers from Gaza in 2005, the Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser, Alan Baker, suggested that Israel declare the disengagement from Gaza partial completion of the third phase, and thus Israel would appear to be acting in keeping with the Oslo Accords rather than unilaterally. Sharon rejected the idea, but Baker’s logic is still sound. Israel can still evacuate any territories it wants in the West Bank in keeping with existing agreements, without seeking a partner and restarting negotiations.
The elimination of the third phase left Area C (60 percent of the West Bank) and East Jerusalem under full Israeli military and civil control, and with control comes an appetite. The settlements swelled and so did efforts to remove the Palestinians from Area C. The occupation is not free: Most of Israel’s military forces (55 percent) are arrayed today in Area C. Now Education Minister Naftali Bennett is demanding formal annexation of this area to Israel, to give legal reinforcement to the de facto situation.
Netanyahu is satisfied with the outcome in retrospect. Israel is controlling the territories even without formal annexation, at the tolerable price of international condemnation, such as the UN Security Council resolution that the settlements are illegal. He hopes that even these condemnations will subside in the era of Donald Trump as U.S. president. But Barak, who today is leading the public call to replace Netanyahu, now warns that holding on to the territories will turn Israel into a binational state, which will sink into civil war between the Arab majority lacking rights and the Jewish minority that will insist on maintaining its superior status.
The “territorial assets” that Barak wanted to keep when he was in office have become a burden, a rope that Israel has wound around itself. The third phase may have died a natural death, as Barak said on his return from Camp David, but in so doing it has also buried the “Jewish and democratic state” beneath it.