What are Israel's options for annexation? – analysis

At issue in evaluating any plan for annexation is the question of territory and audience.

EFRAT. IS it time to annex this Gush Etzion community? (photo credit: REUTERS)
EFRAT. IS it time to annex this Gush Etzion community?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ten months ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gained right-wing accolades when he spoke of annexing the Jordan Valley and the Northern Dead Sea‚ just those two areas — with a promise to do more later.
Then he spoke of annexing all the settlements. Then he moved to 30% of the West Bank under US President Donald Trump’s peace plan.
Now suddenly, with the spotlight on Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and half the settler leadership on the warpath against Trump’s "Deal of the Century," talk has surfaced about a possible return to a partial annexation plan among policy strategists and the media.
Some four years ago, settlers and right-wing politicians pushed back against the Obama administration’s no tolerance attitude toward any settlement building with bold campaigns to introduce annexation as an antidote.
They suggested that a step this large, annexation of all of Area C of the West Bank or even portions of it, was best done in stages.
To this end, they isolated areas of the West Bank of strategic interest or with which the Israeli public strongly identified and argued that perhaps, it was best to annex these areas and then worry about the rest later.
For some on the right, the idea of a phased annexation is kind of like going back to horse and buggy days, when cars are better and faster. Effectively its akin to trying to trying to close Pandora’s box.
Once the talks is of all of the settlements, then why would anyone on the Right, want less?
Opponents of phased annexation fear it would not be the first step but the last, thereby placing a question mark on the future of those communities left out of any plan.
Others think that even with an administration as supportive as Trump’s, perhaps a partial annexation might be more palatable and even calm some of the opposition of the international community. They worry that the real choice Israel faces is partial annexation or no annexation.
That would be particularly true if the plan fell in line with some of the past peace plans or understandings. This would give it some international legitimacy, wider support within the US, particularly in the Democratic Party, and could even be used behind the scenes to calm some of the Arab countries, like Jordan.
At issue in evaluating any plan is the question of territory and audience.
The possibilities moving forward break into four groups:
1. The Trump peace plan
The Trump peace plan is the most maximal plan ever offered to Israel and allows for the annexation of 30% of the West Bank on 50% of territory in Area C. In presenting the plan, the US prides itself on breaking with past proposals. But its plan has few supporters, save for Netanyahu, the Trump administration and centrist right-wing Israelis and settlers.
Those who are more to the right are opposed to its support for a demilitarized Palestinian. They are also concerned by the lack of Israeli territorial contiguity in the West Bank. With less than a month to go until the early date for the plan’s passage, July 1, no final details have been published, which means that security plans cannot be finalized.
There is some speculation the time frame for completing the map is too tight, and additional time is needed, possibly months. In addition, there are no final instructions for security transfer from the IDF to the Israel Police. Nor is there a blueprint for the transition from Israeli military rule to sovereign Israel law.
2. Annexing just the settlements
If Netanyahu were to move forward without the Trump plan, one possibility would be to annex just the settlements. The municipal lines of those settlements are already set. The security perimeter is clear. One would only have to deal with issues of sovereignty within those municipal lines, thereby allowing for more time to finalize the map of additional territory and roads between the settlements that would be annexed.
The plan would be easier than finalizing the 30% map, but it would not assuage any critics, such as the international community, the Palestinians and the Israeli Right. The largest sticking point for the Israeli Right would likely be the fate of the unauthorized outposts, whose boundaries are not set.
The uproar about those communities within the Israeli Right would be as great, if not greater, than the existing anger over the settlement enclaves. Effectively, they would have to be either legalized en masse, including the setting of their boundaries, or face evacuation. Netanyahu has promised that no one would be forcibly uprooted as a result of his plan.
3. Phased annexation starting with the Jordan Valley
Long before the Trump plan, there was talk of the Jordan Valley first due to Israeli security concerns that this area is critical to ensuring the nation’s future safety. The terrain, effectively 20% of the territory designated for annexation under Trump’s plan, sits between sovereign Israel and Jordan. Israel fears that should that territory become part of a failed Palestinian state taken over by a terrorist group like Hamas, it would drive a wedge of enemy territory between Jordan and Israel.
That corridor is seen as particularly sensitive because there is a direct geographical line between Jordan, Iraq and Iran. Should Jordan be taken over by a fundamentalist Islamic regime, there would be no buffer zone to protect Israel. The border is Israel’s longest, and maintaining an IDF presence there is of vital importance. But no past framework for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has ever given that territory to sovereign Israel. At best, there was an understanding that Israel would retain security control.
The presence of Jericho and surrounding Palestinian villages, totaling some 50,000 Palestinians, means the mapping process is complicated. Many of the mapping and security issues that could prevent Israeli preparedness for annexation in July would exist with this plan as well. There is broad objection to Israeli sovereignty in the Jordan Valley, including from the Palestinians, the international community and Jordan and the Arab world.
4. Phased annexation starting with some or all of the settlement blocs
During the Obama administration, the international community, the Palestinians and the US spoke of a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines. The language that surrounded the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict made it seem as if it was widely understood and agreed upon that Israel would withdraw to the pre-1967 lines and that settlements would be evacuated.
But for the 15 years that preceded the Obama administration there was a US understanding that Israel would retain portions of Area C, particularly within high-population areas known as the blocs. It was an understanding that existed at a time when there was international recognition, including from Europe and the Palestinians, that the US was the main broker for the resolution of a two-state solution.
Former US president George Bush made such a commitment with regard to the blocs to former prime minister Ariel Sharon in a famous 2004 letter. Former US president Bill Clinton put forward what is known as the Clinton Parameters, which spoke of Israel’s retention of 4%-6% of the West Bank, not including the Jordan Valley, The Trump plan expands that to only 10% of the West Bank territory, that is not within the Jordan Valley.
Strangely, just when it seemed that the idea of the blocs had disappeared from the diplomatic language of the conflict, there is speculation that restoring the idea of the blocs is the best way to calm the anger around annexation.
If Israel were to choose to annex some portions of the blocs, the hope is that the international community's anger could be muted by presenting the action as a step that fell within the parameters of some past understandings. Effectively, it could both assuage the forces within Israel who want annexation, while at the same time present a silver lining of hope to those who want to return to the two-state solution based on past recognized parameters.
The argument could be made that if the concept was once an accepted one, Israel was not rejecting the possibility of any future peace process by acting within that framework.
Within the idea of annexation, some portions of the blocs are areas over which it would easier or more difficult to apply sovereignty.
Although they are never mentioned in any conversation, the easiest places on which sovereignty can be applied are the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities of Betar Illit and Modi’in Illit, whose combined populations of some 120,000 people make up about 28% of the settler population. Both cities are on the Green Line, and expanding Israel’s boundaries to include them would present the fewest technical challenges.
After that, there would be strong arguments to annex portions of Gush Etzion that are located within the boundaries of the security barrier. Even former US president Jimmy Carter visited that area when he was Israel and declared that he had always envisioned it would be part of Israel’s sovereign borders. The Jewish presence in that region prior to the War of Independence, plus the story of the massacre of its residents during the war, gives that region a boost of support among the Israeli public.
The application of sovereignty over Ma’aleh Adumim also has strong support. The Jewish West Bank city has a population of close to 40,000 and is located about five kilometers outside of Jerusalem. It has long been presumed that it would be part of Israel’s sovereignty borders.
While mapping difficulties exist, the terrain between sovereign Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim is fairly small. But Ma’aleh Adumim has been a redline for Palestinians, who views that area as an essential part of their future state. Although it is an accepted bloc, international objections are likely to be much greater over any annexation plan that would include the city,
The annexation of the West Bank city of Ariel is one of the possibilities that has emerged, but it is also the most technically challenging. The city of some 20,000 is located some 16 km. over the pre-1967 lines, and the mapping process would be fairly complicated and hard to complete quickly. The connection between Ariel and sovereign Israel, while made easy by Route 5, has been so difficult to secure, that even the security barrier was never completed in that area.