The World

Israel’s Annexation Gamble Depends on the U.S. Election

There is a lot of uncertainty around the prime minister’s pledge to assert Israeli sovereignty over occupied territory.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Israel in the middle of a pandemic this week for a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We don’t know exactly what the two talked about, but the topic of annexation certainly came up. The prime minister’s pledge to assert Israeli sovereignty over at least some of the occupied territory—which could happen as early as July 1—has the potential to radically upend Middle East politics, deal a death blow to already faltering hopes for a two-state solution, and give prospective future president Joe Biden his first foreign policy crisis before he even takes office. But there’s a huge amount of uncertainty over how it could play out—and if it will even happen at all.

What is annexation?

The West Bank has been under Israeli control since the 1967 Six-Day War, and the area is now home to over 400,000 Israeli settlers. The official position of most of the international community, including the governments of the U.S. and Israel, has long been that this territory will eventually become an independent Palestinian state, with its final borders decided through negotiation.

However, there’s growing political support in Israel for unilaterally asserting Israeli sovereignty over at least part of the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria, as the Israeli government refers to it. Advocates for annexation were bolstered earlier this year when the Trump administration’s long-awaited peace plan advocated ceding 30 percent of the West Bank to Israel.

There’s precedent for this type of unilateral recognition. In 1981, Prime Minister Menachem Begin made the decision to unilaterally apply Israeli “law, jurisdiction, and administration” to the Golan Heights, an area captured from Syria during the 1967 war. U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan in 2019, though most other governments still consider it occupied Syrian territory.

It’s not clear exactly where Netanyahu would declare Israeli sovereignty. It could be in all 128 existing settlements or some smaller number of settlements closer to Israeli territory, or in the Jordan River valley. The latter runs along the West Bank’s eastern border with Jordan, and is considered a strategic priority for Israel.

What would this change?

Since most of the areas under discussion are already under effective Israeli control, the long-term political ramifications—for Israel, the Palestinians, and the international community—are more significant than the changes that would actually occur on the ground.

Annexation would be another big nail in the coffin of the peace process. Ever since the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, Israeli governments—including Netanyahu’s, most of the time—have operated under at least the pretense of supporting a two-state solution. Annexation, particularly the more expansive scenarios that would carve Palestinian territory up into noncontiguous bubbles, would be the end of the already very rickety Oslo framework. On the Palestinian side, too, support for a two-state solution is fading, and advocacy for one state shared by Jews and Palestinians is growing. Nearly all Western governments still support a two-state solution, but that position is going to become harder to maintain if neither side of the conflict is committed to it.

Annexation would also mean that Palestinians living in these areas would now be subject to Israeli law. While the areas are de facto controlled by Israel, Palestinians currently living there are technically subject to Jordanian law. They would potentially also be eligible for citizenship. These newfound citizenship rights are part of the reason why even some right-wing pro-Israel supporters are nervous about the idea of annexation.

The international response would likely be harsh as well. Key Arab governments, including Jordan and the Gulf countries, have been a little more muted in their criticism of Israel lately, due to both fatigue with the Palestinian issue and shared interests over Iran, but they would have to respond to what would be seen as a major provocation. A number of European countries are also discussing the possibility of punitive economic measures if Israel goes ahead with annexation. All this potential fallout begs the question:

Why now?

On Sunday, Israel’s new unity government will be sworn in, ending more than 500 days of political deadlock. Netanyahu will remain prime minister after he pulled off yet another dumbfounding political escape act. In order to shore up right-wing support, Netanyahu made annexation a big part of his campaign push and will be under pressure to deliver. And while it can sometimes be hard to tell exactly what a politician as Machiavellian as Netanyahu actually believes, there’s reason to think he would view a massive extension of Israeli sovereignty as an important part of his legacy.

Under the coalition agreement, Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz, will serve as vice prime minister until 2021, when he will take over as prime minister. The agreement also states that Netanyahu could bring forward a bill on applying sovereignty to the West Bank as early as July 1.

Gantz campaigned against unilateral annexation and has been accused by former allies of giving his tacit endorsement to Netanyahu’s dangerous plans. His current allies counter that Netanyahu has enough support in the Knesset to pass annexation, even without him, and that by cooperating with Netanyahu, Gantz will be able to block or influence the annexation plan from within.

But the biggest factor motivating Netanyahu right now is Washington. Trump, who has greenlighted nearly every decision made by Netanyahu so far, might only be in office for another eight months. Trump has taken dramatic steps to boost Netanyahu’s electoral chances in the past, and the Israeli prime minister might even view annexation as returning the favor: Annexation has strong support among Christian evangelicals and right-wing Jews in the U.S.

How will Palestinians respond?

Tensions are already rising on the West Bank ahead of the possible declaration. Earlier this week, an Israeli soldier was killed after being struck in the head with a rock near the town of Jenin—the first Israeli military casualty this year. Then a Palestinian man was shot and wounded after attempting a stabbing attack at a checkpoint north of Jerusalem. An annexation declaration could lead to more violence.

Palestinian leaders across the political spectrum are opposed to annexation and would definitely condemn it, but would they go further than that? There’s some speculation that annexation could cause the Palestinian Authority to halt security cooperation with Israel, which would hamper Israel’s ability to fight terrorism, or cause a public backlash so severe it would lead to the collapse of the authority. On the other hand, Palestinian leaders may want to wait before doing anything like canceling security cooperation, to see what happens after the U.S. election.

How will Trump respond?

Trump’s response is not as predictable as it might seem. Trump officials have suggested in the past that they don’t have a problem with annexation. Ambassador David Friedman has suggested that Israel has the right to claim territory on the West Bank “under certain circumstances.” Pompeo has said it’s “ultimately Israel’s decision to make.”

But lately, Washington has seemed a little more cautious. Pompeo was vague on annexation after his meeting in Israel this week, saying only that Netanyahu and Gantz “will have to find the way forward together” and that all actions should be taken “in line with the vision for peace” laid out in Trump’s plan. A State Department spokesman told reporters that discussions about annexation “should take place as part of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians on the Trump peace plan.”

This was interpreted by some experts as a sign that Pompeo had told Netanyahu to slow things down.

The administration has said it wants Israel to hold off on annexation until a joint U.S.-Israeli “mapping team” finishes its work finalizing the preliminary map in the Trump plan, and it’s not clear how long that will take. The Trump plan, orchestrated by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, still envisions a Palestinian state, albeit a diminished one, under significant Israeli security control. The White House may not be willing to give up the dream of the “ultimate deal” quite yet.

All this suggests there’s a strong possibility annexation may be put off for a while after July 1. But the proposal may become even more controversial in the run-up to the election, particularly if Biden is leading in the polls.

Still, Trump administration foreign policy positions are only as solid as the last tweet. If Netanyahu can get through to Trump and make clear that this is what he wants, is Trump really going to oppose the Israeli government on such a fraught issue in an election year?

How will Biden respond?

Biden is a longtime supporter of Israel and a self-declared “buddy” of Netanyahu, but he’s made his position on this issue very clear. He warned Israel to stop its “threats of annexation” in his recent speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. This position is nearly universal among leading Democrats, including traditional Israel hawks and pro-Israel pressure groups. But the question is: If Netanyahu does go ahead with annexation in the next few months, what is Biden going to do about it?

Democratic voters, and some elected officials, have gotten more comfortable criticizing Israeli policies in recent years. But an old-school pol like Biden might still be reluctant to make his opposition to an Israeli policy into a campaign issue. He also may not want to appear to pressure foreign governments before he takes office, something his opponent showed no such qualms about in 2016.

But if Biden wins, and annexation is already a fait accompli when he takes office, he will have some decisions to make. If Trump recognizes annexation, it would be through an executive order, and Biden could just reverse it if he wanted. But he may hesitate to undo a policy once the goal posts are moved. He has already said he would not reverse Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, though he opposed the decision at the time.

In a recent article for Foreign Policy, former Obama officials Robert Malley and Philip Gordon recommended that Biden make clear now that he would do more than just reverse the decision. They say he should establish right now that his administration would not shield Israel from international criticism or censure. They also say he should look into ways to deduct money spent on annexed territories from U.S. security assistance to Israel.

The degree to which Biden engages on relations between Israel and Palestine at all will probably be determined by the facts on the ground in the Middle East in 2021. If the West Bank is in flames when he takes office, he will probably be forced to prioritize the issue. If not, whether annexation has happened or not, it’s likely to be pushed to the back burner. If a Biden presidency does come to pass, it will be marked less by a new U.S. approach to the conflict than by the U.S. giving up on it entirely.