By Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund
Since Donald Trump unveiled his so-called “Peace to Prosperity” plan back in January of this year, we’ve been talking a lot about annexation. That’s because Trump’s plan, which had little to do with peace, contained a “conceptual map” that revealed its basic intention. It envisioned the West Bank carved up into a collection of non-contiguous islands of semi-autonomous Palestinian city-states, surrounded by a sea of Israeli sovereignty. It was a far cry from anything allowing for Palestinian self-determination, providing for a Palestinian “state” in name alone.
Organizations funded by the NIF global network, across the board, warned of the harms to Palestinian rights and to Israeli democracy of such an arrangement, the result of a process which, from the start, excluded Palestinians altogether.
When Benjamin Netanyahu launched a joint mapping exercise with the United States to determine the contours of the proposed annexation – and when Netanyahu floated various election-time proposals to annex territory unilaterally – many of us grew increasingly alarmed, and we spoke out. So did leading members of Congress. Michèle Flournoy, a potential future Secretary of Defense, warned that Netanyahu was “playing with fire.” This April, when Netanyahu’s erstwhile challenger, Benny Gantz, joined him in a national emergency government aimed at fighting the coronavirus pandemic, we were alarmed not only that their coalition agreement allowed for a cabinet vote on annexation as early as July 1, but that Gantz had given up any power to veto it.
All spring and summer, those who care about democracy and the future of Israelis and Palestinians raised the alarm about the prospects of unilateral Israeli annexation of territory in the West Bank and its harms to the Palestinian rights. Mandy Patinkin, the Homeland star who lent his voice to our campaign put it this way: “The summer of 2020, might just turn out to be a horrible memory, and not just because of coronavirus,” he warned.
Earlier this week, everyone was taken by surprise – including Netanyahu’s own Defense and Foreign Ministers – by the announcement that the United Arab Emirates had reached an agreement with Israel to normalize relations in exchange for Israel putting its annexation plans on ice (and also, apparently, the delivery of advanced US military technology to the Emiratis). While the US has assured the UAE that it will not recognize any Israeli annexation for “some time,” there is speculation as to what this means, precisely. UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash has said, what Netanyahu refers to “as suspension, we’re seeing as stopping.”
We should always celebrate peace—Israel reached an historic agreement to normalize relations with one of its distant neighbors After months of campaigns spotlighting the folly of any plan to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank, we should welcome the fact that threat appears to have receded.
But we must remain vigilant. We know that it has not gone away.
Despite explicit commitments made to the US and the UAE, Netanyahu has publicly reiterated that annexation remains his policy – and that his commitment to it is unaffected by the recent deal with the UAE. He argued before his cabinet this week that “in the current agreement, not only has Israel not withdrawn from a single square meter, but the Trump plan includes, at my request, the application of Israeli sovereignty to extensive tracts of territory in Judea and Samaria. I’m the one who insisted on inserting sovereignty into the plan, and that plan hasn’t changed. President Trump is committed to it, and I’m committed to negotiating on the basis of it.”
First, it’s worth pointing out that with few direct benefits, the costs of formal annexation of the West Bank were — and remain — steep. Annexation threatened to destabilize a decades-long peace agreement with Jordan. It posed clear harms to Israel’s relationship with the European Union – and with the Democratic Party. It was a stark violation of a norm that is at the core of the post-war international order: inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force.
In short, Israel stood to gain little to from formal, de jure annexation. Israel already effectively controls the entirety of the territory under discussion. And it has continued, virtually unimpeded, with a state-driven settlement enterprise that in many ways amounts to de facto annexation. “Why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for free?” as the saying goes.
It is not yet known whether Netanyahu was genuinely committed to de jure annexation – or how close it came. What is clear is that, at a certain point, the offer from the UAE was more compelling. It was a deal that offered fewer downsides than moving forward with annexation. Netanyahu took it.
But it is important to keep in mind that this deal, whatever its bilateral benefits, does nothing to resolve the basic, underlying disputes at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinians conflict. On this score, Netanyahu has nothing to offer but continued occupation, ongoing de facto annexation, and conflict. As Dr. Nimrod Goren, founder and head of Mitvim: The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, noted recently, “even without annexation, Netanyahu has tightened Israeli control of the Palestinian territories consistently.”
Perhaps this breakthrough might serve, as Goren suggests, as a catalyst for “a renewed discourse of peace and hope – not only with distant neighbors in the Gulf, but also with the ones next-door in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” Only time will tell. But this will rely on making a robust case in the public square for a broader Israeli engagement toward peace with the Palestinians.
This will require that Israel’s progressive camp continue to build a strong infrastructure for producing and sustaining ideas in the realm of foreign policy. That’s why the NIF global network is proud to support institutions like Mitvim: The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, whose cutting-edge analysis and deeply researched policy proposals are grounded in expert knowledge of the region – and a set of common values.
These values – which include a commitment to Israel’s security, a recognition of the common humanity of Israelis, Palestinians, and all those living in the region, and an understanding that occupation and annexation are antithetical to democracy and peaceful coexistence – are central to our work and vision.
And that vision – of a just Israel at peace with itself and with its neighbours – is what the New Israel Fund was built to support.