On February 15, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Trump will meet in the White House to discuss the future of U.S.-Israel relations. Directly after that, Israel’s Parliament is likely to take up an issue that could change the contours of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict forever: annexation.
Since Trump won the presidency, annexation of parts of the West Bank has become central to Israeli political discourse, filling Hebrew headlines and parliamentary debates. Here’s what the term means, and why it’s on the lips and minds of so many Israelis today:
What is annexation?
In general terms, annexation means the political transfer of land. In the current Israeli context, it refers to the application of Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, which Israel captured and has occupied since 1967, and where Palestinians hope to build a state. Naftali Bennett, chief of the hard-line Jewish Home party, has a plan to annex Area C, for example, where hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers live, and then offer citizenship to the less than 50,000 Palestinians living in that area.
Since 1967, Israel has effectively annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Legal scholars disagree on whether Israel has ever fully established its sovereignty over these areas even as Israeli law, jurisdiction and administration extends to these places. Some experts say that since Israel didn’t automatically bestow citizenship to the residents in those areas — offering it as optional — Israel never fully annexed the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the international community considers these areas occupied territory.
Why is it so controversial?
The application of Israeli sovereignty to parts or all of the West Bank would negate or severely chip away at the possibility of a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. It would also be a breach of international law, Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard said, running afoul of the “prohibition on acquisition of land by force.”
If Israel unilaterally annexes parts of the West Bank, it will be violating and, in effect, canceling past agreements it has made with the Palestinians, effectively undermining the decades-long peace process.
Why are Israeli leaders pushing for it since Trump’s election?
While Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, tried to curb West Bank settlements, Trump has sent mixed signals on Israeli building in the area where Palestinians hope to establish a state. In early statements, he said that settlements were no obstacle to peace, but later dialed that back to say they were not “good for peace.” Meanwhile, Trump’s pick for Israel envoy, David Friedman, as well as his adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have given financial support to Israeli settlements.
These appointments, as well as Trump’s statements in support of Israel, have motivated Israel’s nationalist right to sound the drumbeat to annex parts of the West Bank, thus preventing a Palestinian state from taking root. Naftali Bennett, chief of the far-right Jewish Home party, declared Trump’s win the end of the “era of a Palestinian state,” and has been aggressively pushing for annexation ever since.
Recently, Israeli lawmakers introduced an initiative to annex Ma’ale Adumim, a large settlement outside Jerusalem, but discussion over the bill has been shelved until Trump and Netanyahu have a chance to meet.
How would annexation change life on the ground for Israeli settlers?
Right now, Israelis in the West Bank are governed by a patchwork of laws. As Israeli citizens, they vote in Israeli elections but they are also subject to Jordanian law left over from the time that Jordan controlled the territory — which also includes Ottoman and British regulations — as well as to Israeli military law.
According to Sfard, in some cases, Israeli legislation has been applied to the settlements by military order. This is how the Ministry of Education sets up schools in the settlements, for example. But other laws, such as Israeli environmental law, have not been extended to the settlements. If Israel annexes the settlements, Israeli law will be the law of the land.
What does it mean for the Palestinians?
Annexation of settlement such as Ma’ale Adumim would prevent a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank, dashing Palestinian national aspirations and limiting Palestinian rule to small local enclaves. The fate of Palestinians in annexed areas would depend on Israeli law.
“If Palestinians living in the annexed territories will not be offered Israeli citizenship, that would mean that Israel is officially creating a noncitizen class, hence the charge of apartheid would be difficult to dismiss,” Sfard said. “If citizenship is offered, most chances are that Palestinian residing in those areas would decline, so de facto we will again be confronted with an institutional discrimination based on nationality.”
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.