For the first time in its history, an Israeli Prime Minister has vowed to annex the West Bank, a territory Israel has occupied since the 1967 War.
“I am going to apply Israeli sovereignty,” Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview Saturday, just 72 hours before the Knesset (Israeli parliament) elections. “I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated settlements. From my perspective, each of those settlement points is Israeli.”
This would amount to full annexation, and Netanyahu voiced confidence that US President Donald Trump would back the move. In the past, the prime minister and all of his predecessors would have opposed such a move for fear of the international community’s response.
While Israel militarily controls the area, which it calls Judea and Samaria, and has constructed settlements on it, it has never claimed sovereignty over the territory outside of occupied East Jerusalem.
Israel’s official stance has always been that the fate of the area will be determined in final status negotiations. In his statement, Netanyahu did not make clear if he intends to annex the entire West Bank, the areas currently controlled by the Israeli military.
As it stands, the territory is fragmented by settlements connected by roads with restricted or no access to the nearly 3 million Palestinian inhabitants. A top diplomat of the United Arab Emirates, a key Gulf ally of Israel, last month suggested the ongoing settlement activity was to the point where the West Bank would never be part of a future Palestinian state.
“What we are facing, if we continue on the current trajectory, I think the conversation in 15 years’ time will really be about equal rights in one state,” said Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, adding that “a two-state solution will no longer be feasible.”
The Trump factor
In the past, external considerations have stopped Israeli right-wing governments from altering the territorial status quo. Israeli dependence on the United States for arms and cover in the United Nations has meant that it is particularly sensitive to pressure from Washington. Traditionally, the United States has supported Israel diplomatically but has stopped short of legitimizing its wartime conquests.
The Trump administration has sharply broken with this policy, evincing a willingness to recognize Israeli sovereignty in occupied territory. Both the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the state, with no caveat for occupied East Jerusalem, and the recent recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights are indications of this change.
This lesson has not been lost on Netanyahu. At the time he noted that Trump had recognized “a very important principle in international life: When you start wars of aggression, [and] you lose territory, do not come and claim it afterwards. It belongs to us.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has gone on record to say that this precedent would not apply to the West Bank. Indeed, the State Department has long insisted that the West Bank is disputed territory and its status should not be decided outside of negotiations over its final status.
However, it has become quite clear that Trump does not govern in accordance with bureaucratic precedence. Notably, his decision to recognize the Golan Heights was taken in the spur of the moment and without consultation.
Beyond electoral rhetoric
With the Israeli general elections coming up on Tuesday, Netanyahu’s West Bank annexation announcement is clearly linked to the electoral strategy of the Likud party. The most recent polls show the two biggest parties – the Likud led by Netanyahu and Blue and White led by Benny Gantz – essentially tied. However, the Likud’s natural coalition partners are expected to obtain a comfortable majority.
According to four separate polls taken in the last few days, the bloc expected to support Netanyahu will receive 66 seats. The parties likely to oppose his rule are set to obtain 54.
This has led to a change of strategy for the ruling Likud party. Earlier in the campaign, the prime minister focused his fire on the centrist Blue and White party in an attempt to shore up support from the center. At that time, polls showed that the right and left-wing blocs as a whole were roughly tied. In an attempt to attract moderate right-wing voters away from the Blue and White party, he obsessively accused rival Benny Gantz of being a “soft left-winger.”
Netanyahu is now confident enough in the superiority of his bloc to veer strongly to the right, in an apparent bid to attract extreme right-wing voters. It is in this context that Netanyahu has vowed to extend Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank.
Some have dismissed this as mere election rhetoric. However, there are reasons to believe that this problematic policy may come to pass. Netanyahu faces indictment on charges regarding three cases, including one case of bribery, and may face a future indictment on another case. He will need the support of his coalition partners to legislate a law granting him immunity while in office. The promise of full annexation may be just the ticket for Netanyahu to guarantee their cooperation in keeping him in power and out of jail.
The coalition is likely to include several extreme right-wing parties. The most extreme of all is the United Right, which includes followers of the racist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Their platform calls for a “fight to fully instill Israeli law and sovereignty” in the West Bank and for the reestablishment of dismantled settlements in Gaza. According to the polls, they are expected to receive five to seven seats.
The messianic Zehut party, led by extremist Moshe Feiglin, is set to receive a similar number of seats. Though better known for their pledge to legalize marijuana, the party has also vowed to apply full sovereignty to the West Bank. Meanwhile, the New Right party, headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett supports the annexation of the areas of the West Bank currently controlled by the Israeli military (roughly 60% of the territory). It is expected to receive 5 or 6 seats.
Public opinion should not be a significant obstacle to the annexation move. According to a poll appearing in the Israeli Ha’aretz newspaper, 42% of the public support some form of annexation in the West Bank, while only 28% are opposed to even limited annexation. This is somewhat misleading, since annexation at this point would be unilateral, while many of the responders presumably were referring to control in the context of an agreement. However, supporters of the Netanyahu government will overwhelmingly support the move.
If Netanyahu wins, his right-wing coalition can be expected to pressure him into putting annexation into effect as soon as possible. Trump faces a fierce election battle in 2020 and annexation-happy parties will wish to present a potential future Democratic administration with a fait accompli.
The most likely scenario is that the Israeli government will wait until the United States presents the “deal of the century” peace plan. The Palestinian Authority, whose de facto administrative capital is located in the West Bank city of Ramallah, has promised to reject any deal and will almost inevitably do so. Israel will then likely respond by announcing that the Palestinians are not a viable partner for peace and proceeding to annex either the settlement blocs or all of Area C.
With re-election coming up, it would surprise no one if Trump recognized Israeli annexation in order to shore up support among American evangelicals in the general election. Annexation backed by recognition from the United States may be the most devastating setback for the prospects of a viable Palestinian state. The fateful results of Tuesday’s elections may determine the viability of a two-state solution.