A history of annexation, and how to make it last

MIDDLE ISRAEL: To last, annexations must be politically and demographically digestible.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT of the United States’ annexation of Hawaii in the ‘Pacific Commerical Advertiser,’ on July 14, 1898. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE ANNOUNCEMENT of the United States’ annexation of Hawaii in the ‘Pacific Commerical Advertiser,’ on July 14, 1898.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Having defeated Dafydd (David) the Prince of Wales, King Edward I had him hanged and his corpse publicly dragged and butchered before proceeding to clutch Wales itself, first by annexing it, then by flooding with English settlers his enemy’s fallen realm.
It was 1283, and such things could be done with impunity, in the effective absence of public opinion and international law as we know them today. This doesn’t mean annexations ended with the Middle Ages.
In 1845 the US annexed Texas, after it had seceded from Mexico and been independent for nearly a decade. This could happen because the local population, mostly American ranchers who had arrived since the 1820s, truly wanted to be annexed, as did their leader Sam Houston, who later became a US senator and a Texas governor.
Such popular will did not exist when the US annexed Hawaii.
Yes, that annexation was approved in 1898 by the US Congress, where a decisive majority backed a bill proposed by the aptly named congressman from Nevada Francis Newlands. However, the Hawaiians themselves were never asked.
Though some Hawaiians had helped the US in its war with Spain over the Philippines, many Hawaiians opposed their annexation. A secessionist movement exists there to this day, recalling the lost Hawaiian kingdom and its last monarch, Queen Lili‘uokalani, a musician whose overthrow by pro-American rebels was backed by a landing of US Marines.
Even more cynical has been the Soviet Union’s annexation of Japan’s far north.
HAVING ATTACKED Japan two weeks before its surrender, the Soviet Union annexed the Kuril Islands.
The cynicism was in the invasion’s timing – with Japan already on its knees after sustaining two atomic bombs – but even more so in its formal justification, Stalin’s deal with Roosevelt and Churchill, even though it violated Russia’s territorial agreements with Japan.
Unlike the kingdom of Hawaii, imperial Japan was no anecdote. Still, as Stalin saw things, annexation was Japan’s punishment for attacking and humiliating Russia back in 1904.
Yet, in terms of our topic, what matters is the geopolitical principle that Stalin applied in 1945, which was the same one America applied in 1898 – namely, that superpowers can annex.
Seventy-five years on, mighty Japan still demands the Kuril Islands – in vain. Russia is a superpower, and there is nothing Japan can do about that.
That is how Russia proceeded to its next annexation, 2014’s, when Vladimir Putin snatched Crimea from Ukraine. “We are a superpower,” he may have told himself while shaving that morning, recalling also China’s 1951 annexation of Tibet. If China could clutch someone else’s 1.17 million square kilometers, why couldn’t Russia annex a peninsula the size of New Hampshire?
Yes, the Western sanctions his Crimean annexation triggered have harmed his country, and evidently trouble Putin. However, six years on, it is clear that Russia could afford its Crimean gambit’s economic price, steep though it is.
Annexations, in short, touch off a lot of moral rhetoric, but ultimately they are about power. And as power plays go, they demand careful gauging not only of the power of the annexing and the weakness of the annexed, but also many other actors’ sensitivities and reflexes.
That is what Saddam Hussein didn’t understand when he annexed Kuwait.
The Iraqi strongman did not predict the international alarm his move would spark and the powers it would combine – a corpus of Arab, European and American armies – all of which made his annexation patently untenable.
Turkey, by contrast, understood this complexity after its 1974 invasion of Cyprus (which Britain had annexed in 1914). A succession of Turkish governments occupied their southern neighbor’s north, but never proceeded to formally annex it, even under the impulsive Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Annexation, then, is about digestion, both political and demographic. If you are big enough, and what you swallow is small enough, your annexation can last. If you are too small and what you gulp is too big, you might choke.
So now, with Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation looming, the question to him is this:
DO YOU think you are King Edward, whose Welsh annexation meant nothing to the outside world?
Surely, you are no Saddam Hussein, whose target was a sovereign country, and who did not possess your kind of calculating mind.
Obviously, you also don’t think you are Mao in Tibet or Stalin in Japan, but maybe you think you are William McKinley in Hawaii? If you do, let us remind you he presided over an emerging superpower that could act in total disregard of the outside world.
You are also no Vladimir Putin, who possesses huge deposits of gold, silver, oil, gas, iron, zinc, timber and any other commodity, in addition to being armed to his teeth and inhabiting the world’s largest land, all of which allows him to provoke half the world and care little for its response.
So maybe you think you are Sam Houston? Well, sadly, you aren’t him either.
The Texan leader could lead his population to Uncle Sam’s bosom because Texas was mostly inhabited by Americans. The West Bank’s Jews, by contrast, are hardly one fifth of its population, even when counting east Jerusalem.
That is also the difference between the West Bank and the Golan Heights, which Menachem Begin could annex in 1981 because not one Palestinian ever lived there.
The question to you is therefore this: What happens with your annexed Jews’ Palestinian neighbors? Do they get a state, and if so – when, where, how? Or do the Palestinians become Israelis, and if so – how? With or without citizenship and voting rights?
What’s the plan, Bibi? Do you even realize these people are there? Or is this just one ambitious experiment, a political detonation designed to explore whether a country less than one tenth the size of Texas can swallow Tibet in the morning and surf in Hawaii before dusk?
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019) is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.