America’s relationship with Israel wasn’t much of a campaign issue during the 2016 election, but it might be this time.
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden said on Tuesday that Israel unilaterally annexing parts of the West Bank would “choke off any hope for peace.”
The statement, made during a virtual fundraising event, puts more of a spotlight on the new Israeli government’s stated intention to annex parts of the West Bank, including several settlements and the Jordan Valley.
Here’s a guide to what this all means:
What is annexation?
Annexation is the act of applying a country’s laws onto territory claimed by another country, usually without violence. In practical terms, this means that an area goes from belonging to one country to belonging to another one. For example, Texas stopped being an independent republic and joined the United States after its territory was annexed in 1845.
Countries are usually only able to annex a foreign area if they have already conquered it (as when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine) or if its citizens agree to join (like in Texas).
What does this have to do with Israel?
Israel conquered five areas in the Six Day War of 1967: the Sinai Desert, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Israel essentially annexed East Jerusalem in 1980 and the Golan Heights in 1981, and withdrew from Sinai in 1982 and Gaza in 2005.
But the West Bank has been in a sort of limbo status for more than 50 years. The Palestinian Authority controls some of it, and Israel controls the rest, including the Jewish settlements, but doesn’t officially consider those areas part of “Israeli territory” or use Israeli civilian laws there.
Some on the Israeli right have long been pushing for Israel to annex parts of the West Bank, especially the strategically important Jordan Valley. The results of the most recent Israeli election make that outcome likelier than ever.
Why is Biden talking about annexation now?
After more than a year and three elections, Israel finally has a government. It’s a partnership led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud party and Vice Prime Minister Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White coalition. According to the terms of their agreement, Netanyahu can introduce a bill proposing annexation of the Jordan Valley and other areas of the West Bank as soon as July 1. This has triggered a global conversation about the possibility. If Israel were to do this, it would violate a broad international consensus against countries annexing territories that they conquered in wars, since recognizing those moves could incentivize more invasions.
There are also concerns that annexation could destabilize the region. King Abdullah II of Jordan warned last week of “chaos and extremism” and a “massive conflict” with his country if annexation is carried out, for example. And Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Tuesday that he would stop cooperating with Israel on joint security measures because of the mere possibility of annexation.
Finally, there are worries that the way Israel’s post-annexation borders would make a contiguous Palestinian state difficult or impossible, making it harder for Palestinians to accept those lines as the basis for a two-state solution.
Will annexation actually happen?
It remains to be seen. While Gantz and Netanyahu both support annexing the valley, they have very different ideas of how that should be carried out. Netanyahu is willing to do it unilaterally. Gantz has said that he’d only do it “in coordination with the international community.” That would be much more complicated, because the international community is almost unanimously opposed to annexation.
The one possible exception is the United States. The peace plan that President Trump unveiled in January — with no Palestinian input — allows Israel to annex the Jordan Valley.
However, even the United States says it should only happen in cooperation with the Palestinians, who have said they are unwilling to cooperate. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus reiterated on Monday that annexation “should be part of a peace process where Palestinians should have a say.”
But any successful peace process would have to recognize a Palestinian state, which many members of the Likud – and certainly the parties in the Israeli government coalition that are even farther to the right – are unwilling to accept in any capacity.
Could this mean a split among Democratic Israel supporters?
Republican groups have indicated that they will try to win votes from Jewish moderates in November by labeling Biden as insufficiently supportive of Israel, despite the fact that he’s long been considered a stalwart of the party’s pro-Israel flank. Biden has also said that he’ll try to keep his criticism of Israel private, sharing it only with Israeli leaders. But if annexation occurs, he’ll be forced to take a public stand, and it could create some division.
No pro-Israel Democratic politicians support annexation. But most moderates, including Biden, have said that the billions of dollars the U.S. sends to Israel for security assistance should continue even if annexation goes through. However, many rising stars on the left oppose continued assistance to a post-annexation Israeli Defense Forces. This disagreement could cause a split in the pro-Israel consensus within the Democratic Party, and put Jewish voters, most of whom vote Democrat and are generally supportive of Israel, in a tough spot.
What is annexation? Why would Israel annex West Bank?