For 53 years, the fate of the West Bank – captured from Jordan in the Six Day War in 1967 – has been in limbo.
Although successive Israeli governments have encouraged Jews to settle in the Biblical heartland, political leaders have been reluctant to extend Israeli sovereignty to Judea and Samaria, despite mounting pressure from Jewish residents (the only exception was the extension of Israeli sovereignty to east Jerusalem by Menachem Begin’s government in 1980). But this might be about to change.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, eager to create a legacy for himself, has promised to introduce a move to annex parts of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) in July as part of the US Middle East peace plan.
US President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” unveiled at a White House ceremony in January, included a map showing areas that could be annexed by Israel. The area comprised roughly 30% of the West Bank, including the sparsely populated Jordan Valley – which runs along the western bank of the Jordan River – and most Jewish settlements.
A joint American-Israeli team was set up to map the exact areas delineated for annexation, but its work was delayed by the coronavirus outbreak, and by early June the team had still not completed its work. Netanyahu refused to share details of the map with his new defense minister, Benny Gantz, and foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, both of the Blue and White Party. Leaders of the settler movement were also kept in the dark.
The idea of annexation is opposed by the Palestinians, the Arab world and almost the entire international community, along with the Left in Israel. But, paradoxically, the Trump plan has also created a major rift amongst the settlers themselves, with many of the senior leaders of the Yesha Council speaking out against the planned annexation.
David Elhayani, head of the Yesha Council, warned that the plan would mark the first step toward the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the 70% of the West Bank not earmarked for Israeli annexation.
Urging Israel to hold off on any unilateral move until clear-cut promises were received from Washington ruling out what he termed the creation of a “terror state in the heart of the Land of Israel,” Elhayani said Trump is not a friend of Israel.
“Ultimately, he presented a plan that endangers the existence of Israel. If someone comes to me with a cake and puts a gun to my head, will I take the cake and say to them ‘Thank you?’ The plan contains existential dangers.”
Netanyahu condemned the comments. “President Trump is a great friend,” Netanyahu said. “He has led historic moves for Israel’s benefit. It is regrettable that instead of showing gratitude, his friendship has been repudiated.”
In addition to the Israeli promise to engage in negotiations on Palestinian statehood, the settlers were also concerned that the Trump plan left 15 communities isolated outside settlement blocs and called for a Jewish construction freeze in areas set aside for the Palestinians.
However, other settler leaders support the annexation plan. Asaf Mintzer, the mayor of Elkana, said this was a historic opportunity not to be missed.
“The settler movement has been waiting for 50 years for the application of Israeli law. Are we going to throw that away? First we have to accept what is on the table.”
Despite being unaware of the exact details of the annexation proposals, Gantz in early June ordered the military to begin preparing for the potential consequences.
The army’s war games envisioned a number of possible scenarios, ranging from tense calm accompanied by disturbances in certain flashpoints to violence and mass confrontations to all-out conflict in which the Palestinian Authority’s various security branches, together with the Fatah militias, will turn their weapons against Israeli troops and the settlements.
Some 5,000 protesters gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on June 6, the anniversary of the start of the Six Day War, in a joint Jewish-Arab rally against annexation. Meretz Party chairman MK Nitzan Horowitz told the crowd: “We cannot replace an occupation of dozens of years with an apartheid that will last forever.”
On a tour of the Jordan Valley in early June, left-wing opponents of the plan expressed concern annexation could lead to bloodshed.
As the debate over annexation heated up, President Reuven Rivlin called for calm. “We are brothers, let us remember that. The increased preoccupation with annexation has again elicited strong language. It is them or us, for us or against us. We all lose from this kind of dialogue.”
The Palestinians – who claim all the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem as an independent state – have dismissed the Trump plan as biased toward Israel and a denial of their rights.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas said he was ending “all agreements” with Israel and the United States in response to the annexation plan.
Jordan has also spoken out clearly against unilateral annexation and although the Hashemite kingdom is unlikely to revoke its peace treaty with Israel, it is expected that it will recall its ambassador and reduce security cooperation if the annexation goes ahead.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tried to issue a joint warning to Israel in the name of all EU member states, but his initiative was blocked by Hungary, the Czech Republic and Austria. Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, one of the European states pushing for sanctions, warned that Europe would take steps against Israel if the annexation were to go forward.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was due to meet in June with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem to warn them against annexation. According to German media reports, Berlin is concerned that the move will force it to choose between its alliance with Israel and its respect for international law.
While the Netanyahu’s plans remain shrouded in mystery, he did declare the 60,000-or-so Palestinians who live in the Jordan Valley will not be granted Israeli citizenship. If he decides to implement annexation it is clear that he must do so in the coming months, ahead of the US election in November.
But it is unclear if an incoming Democratic administration would accept such a move. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said he opposes annexation as part of his general opposition to “unilateral steps” that would “undercut the prospects for peace.”
In a June poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 28.5% of Israeli Jews said they supported annexation only with the backing of the US administration, and a similar number said they would support annexation even without American backing; 26% said they were opposed to annexation and 17.5% said they did not know.
The poll also found that 58% of the Israeli public believe the application of Israeli sovereignty will prompt the Palestinians to respond with a new intifada.
The lack of a clear-cut consensus in Israel prompted concern among supporters of the plan that the Americans might get cold feet. With Trump preoccupied with the coronavirus, the economic recession and violent protests across the US, it may not be the right time for his administration to embark on a risky gambit that has the potential to reignite Middle East tension ahead of the US’s November elections.