New Israeli Elections Could Force Netanyahu To Annex The West Bank. Americans Must Protest.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s failure to assemble a new rightwing coalition government has averted the danger that Israel will soon begin formally annexing parts of the West Bank. But this danger has not disappeared entirely. It has only been postponed.
A few days before Israel’s April election, Netanyahu made a bold pledge in an interview on Israeli television. Responding to a question about his policy regarding the West Bank (Judea and Samaria, as many Israeli Jews refer to it), he declared:
“I will not uproot a single settlement, and I will ensure that we’ll control all the area west of the Jordan River. Will we move to the next stage? The answer is yes, we will move to the next stage — to the gradual extension of Israeli sovereignty in the areas of Judea and Samaria. I also do not distinguish between the settlement blocs and the lone settlements; every settlement like that is for me Israeli.”
What caught people’s attention was not Netanyahu’s outright refusal to dismantle any Israeli settlements in the West Bank. There was nothing new about this. What was unprecedented was Netanyahu’s pledge to gradually extend Israeli sovereignty over every settlement there, including those located deep inside the West Bank.
Previously, Netanyahu deftly resisted rightwing pressure to partially or completely annex the West Bank — a demand made by, among others, his political rival, Naftali Bennett, and by his own Likud Party. Now the usually cautious and conservative Netanyahu seemed to be throwing caution to the wind by publicly embracing a once radical proposal that could upend the fragile status quo between Israel and the Palestinians that Netanyahu has spent years carefully maintaining since his return to the premiership a decade ago.
Many commentators, inside and outside Israel, have downplayed the significance of Netanyahu’s pre-election pledge, characterizing it as merely a desperate, last-minute political ploy to win the votes of rightwing Israelis, especially settlers (many of whom were disappointed and frustrated by Netanyahu’s leadership). But even if Netanyahu’s sole motivation was to secure electoral gains — which he succeeded in doing, as Likud gained five Knesset seats — his vow to apply Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank could still turn out to be hugely significant.
If Netanyahu’s Likud Party wins the next election, due to take place in September, he may be compelled to carry out his promise, whether he really wants to or not. If he reneges, he risks losing the support of his preferred coalition partners, Likud Knesset members and party activists, and many rightwing Israelis (most of whom now favor annexation of some kind).
Moreover, Netanyahu will not only have a strong political incentive to advance annexation, he will also have a pressing personal one: to ensure his immunity from criminal prosecution over multiple charges of corruption. In short, to stay in office, and out of jail, Netanyahu might be willing to do what he and his predecessors have always avoided doing: officially annex areas of the West Bank (Israel has gradually been unofficially annexing West Bank land for many years, primarily through settlement construction, in a process that has been described as “creeping” de-facto annexation).
Hence, another Netanyahu-led government will probably be committed to extending Israel’s sovereignty over some areas of the West Bank. It will most likely begin by unilaterally annexing one or more of the major Israeli settlement blocs (such as the Ma’ale Adumim bloc). Since a majority of Israeli Jews want Israel to permanently retain control of these large settlement blocs (where most settlers, and no Palestinians, live), annexing them would be the least controversial domestically. And the Trump Administration would probably lend its approval, or at least acquiesce, to such a move; it has already recently recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel effectively annexed in 1981.
But once the political and legal Rubicon has been crossed, the extension of Israeli sovereignty into the West Bank might not stop at just the settlement blocs. At minimum, the Israeli right will surely push for all settlements and the area around them (located within their municipal boundaries) to also be incorporated under Israeli sovereignty, which could eventually result in Israel annexing all the West Bank land it exclusively controls (designated as “Area C” in the Oslo Accords, it encompasses 60% of the West Bank). Israel might offer Palestinians who live in this area — an estimated population of 180,000-300,000 — permanent residency or even citizenship, since there are not enough of them to pose a demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish identity. The rest of the 2.9 million Palestinians in the West Bank, however, would live in an archipelago of disconnected enclaves governed by the autonomous Palestinian Authority but surrounded by Israeli territory. There would be no prospect for a territorially contiguous and viable Palestinian state.
Needless to say, Palestinians will not accept this. Although the PA has little power, it can, and probably will, respond to Israel’s partial annexation of West Bank land — a violation of the Oslo Accords — by ending its security cooperation with Israel, which has significantly helped reduce the number of violent attacks against Israelis. This could unleash a wave of Palestinian violence, and possibly even a third Intifada.
The PA could also go further and simply dissolve itself, thereby forcing Israel to reoccupy and rule the entire West Bank, which would be financially, militarily and diplomatically costly. And Israel would finally be confronted with a fateful decision to either enfranchise all Palestinians in the West Bank and jeopardize its Jewish identity, or deny them citizenship and/or the right to vote and cease to be a democracy.
Annexing areas of the West Bank, therefore, could put Israel on a slippery slope to becoming either a bi-national state or an apartheid state (or — perhaps — push it further down the slope it’s already on). Neither outcome will be stable or peaceful.
Before the next Israeli election takes place, therefore, it is imperative for Israel’s supporters in the United States — at least those who want it to remain a democracy — to loudly and unequivocally declare their opposition to any Israeli annexation of territory in the West Bank. Hopefully, Israeli voters and politicians will take notice.
Dov Waxman is Professor of Political Science, International Affairs, and Israel Studies, and the Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies at Northeastern University. He is also the director of Northeastern University’s Middle East Studies program. His latest book, “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know” has just been published by Oxford University Press.