Will 2017 be the year of West Bank annexation?

Politics in 2017, much like what was in vogue last year, calls for diplomatic caution to be tossed to the wind.

Knesset passes settlement bill on February 6, 2017 (credit: REUTERS)
Call it Israel’s Brexit, or a form of Trump-ism, but those curious about how a similar philosophy might play out in Israel, a county of 8.6 million that can’t afford isolationism, need look no further than Monday night’s Knesset vote.
It’s no accident that during the right-wing euphoria that erupted after the passage of the settlements regulation bill passage, MK Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi) stood at the plenum’s podium and thanked US President Donald Trump, among others.
Politics in 2017, much like what was in vogue last year, call for diplomatic caution to be thrown to the wind. In this new era, politicians feel empowered to place national interests ahead of international ones. “It’s America first,” Trump said on Inauguration Day just last month.
Last night, the Right took a page out of his book and made it clear that Israel comes first regarding the communities of Judea and Samaria, otherwise known as the settlements in Area C of the West Bank.
Sixty politicians voted into law a measure that they were warned would bring down upon them the wrath of the International Criminal Court and would further isolate Israel in the international arena.
Not only were they aware that it crossed a redline when it comes to annexation, but in fact they welcomed it as a step in the right direction of imposing sovereignty on Area C.
The law itself solves a technical problem and does not at first flush make any changes to the Jewish footprint in Judea and Samaria. It retroactively legalizes 4,000 settler homes in West Bank settlements and outposts that are built on private Palestinian property, which would otherwise eventually be demolished.
In so doing, the legislation snubbed close to 40 years of High Court of Justice rulings that held, in keeping with international law, that such homes could not be legalized.
It also signals the end of what has become a well-known drama in the West Bank hilltops, consisting of Border Police officers and the police forcibly evacuating settlers from their homes based on previous High Court rulings.
Under the new law, Israel will offer the Palestinians compensation for property that in many cases they have not been able to access for decades.
The Right hails the measure as an affirmation of 3,000 years of Jewish roots in Israel’s biblical heartland, while Palestinians and the Left have bluntly called it an immoral law that sanctions land theft and have warned that it could empower further land grabs from innocent Palestinians.
The legalization of some 700 homes in West Bank outposts also paves the way for the transformation of dozens of those communities into new settlements.
Area C of the West Bank, where all settlements are located, is under Israeli military rule. Palestinians living there are not Israeli citizens, and according to left-wing legal experts, Israel is dutybound under international law to protect their rights, particularly with regard to property.
According to the Left, the settlements law ignores this obligation and places Israel in danger of repercussions in the ICC.
The seizure of private Palestinian property is also what led to many international condemnations of the measure on Tuesday. But the issues of settler building, private Palestinian property and the creation of new settlements are part of a wellknown paradigm.
In that drama, Israel seeks to build as much as it can in Area C to ensure that portions of that territory are placed under sovereign Israel when a final-status agreement is worked out with the Palestinians in a two-state solution. On Monday night, the Right replaced that paradigm with one that calls for annexation, or as they prefer to call it, the “imposition of sovereignty.”
For the first time, the Knesset authorized a law that will directly affect the West Bank, over which it has no sovereign power and which is outside its purview. Such a move can be interpreted as the beginning of sovereignty, about which the Right was quite blunt.
“This is a historic step toward the completion of a process that we plan to lead; the application of full Israeli sovereignty on all the cities and communities in Judea and Samaria,” Smotrich said after the vote.
This “crosses a very thick redline,” UN Special Coordinator to the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov warned in response. But for the Right, fed up with eight years of incessant criticism over settlement activity, such talk no longer holds sway.
It’s the boomerang effect of Palestinian unilateralism, which sought to force Israeli agreement to a two-state solution at the 1967 line by refusing to negotiate until there was a consensus on this one principled point.
Instead, in a universe where no peace process seems possible, the Right sees no reason to hold back on specifying what it believes should be the final borders of the Jewish state.
They mean it when they say that this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, should be the year in which sovereignty is imposed on Area C, territory acquired by Israel during that war.
In his office, Netanyahu might be planning a measured and cautious approach to the West Bank that he plans to present to Trump when the two men meet in Washington on February 15.
The settlers have expressed fears that he hopes to reinstate the notion of the settlement blocs that were part of the Clinton parameters from 2000, which former US president Barack Obama ignored.
For former prime minister Ariel Sharon, it was a victory when he secured a pledge from former president George Bush to honor the idea that Israel would retain the settlement blocs.
For the Right, the idea is so passé it seems like a defeat, since they want nothing less than full annexation.
Netanyahu’s cautious style of diplomacy when it comes to the settlements is, to them, old-fashioned and certainly out of style.
The visual of the vote said it all: Netanyahu was not able to make it back from London in time for the vote.
Whether planned or accidental, it’s an absence that allows him to say to supporters of the law that he was with them in spirit, but to its opponents he can say it took place in his absence.
On camera, this is the reality. The Right took action. They can be seen smiling and cheering their victory, while Netanyahu’s chair stands empty.