Annexation: Let the people speak for themselves

Why should the unilateral extension of sovereign territory now be considered a matter of lesser national importance than would be the contraction of sovereign territory?

A protest for Israeli sovereignty in the Jordan Valley and Judea and Samaria in Jerusalem in February. Will events complicate the plans? (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
A protest for Israeli sovereignty in the Jordan Valley and Judea and Samaria in Jerusalem in February. Will events complicate the plans?
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated commitment to move forward on the annexation of some parts of the West Bank, there is actually no clarity at all about what he intends to do.
The issue remains wrapped in a veil of ambiguity that denies the public any opportunity for a real debate about the application of Israeli law, jurisdiction and administration, i.e., the extension of sovereignty to areas now formally under a military government. The prime minister has provided no information about the geographical extent, the timing, the sequencing or the conditions and circumstances under which annexation will be pursued.
This means that it is impossible to get any useful sense of how the public really views this issue. All the opinion polls thus far yield different results for different scenarios. In fact, the degree of public support for annexation depends on which areas might be annexed, whether or not there is agreement with the Americans about the map, whether or not there is agreement within the ruling coalition, whether or not there is coordination with other regional actors, and whether or not the action is contextualized by the Trump plan, which is conditioned on endorsement of some kind of rump Palestinian pseudo-state (to which many on the Right are categorically opposed).
There is only one way to determine how much the public will support or oppose – not vague general principles about sovereignty and unilateral action – but rather the specific proposal that Netanyahu puts forward. That method is to condition approval of any detailed proposal to add to the sovereign territory of Israel on the same procedure that the right-wing parties ensured will apply to proposals to subtract from the sovereign territory of Israel.
Basic Law: Referendum (2014), passed during one of Netanyahu’s previous terms as Prime minister, was essentially meant to prevent any hypothetical concessions in east Jerusalem or the Golan by future governments by giving opponents of concessions, even not a majority, a veto over the process.
The Basic Law stipulates that the law, jurisdiction and administration of the State of Israel shall no longer apply to territory where they currently apply only if any renunciation of sovereignty is approved either by a Knesset supermajority of 80 or else by an absolute majority of the Knesset (61 members) and by a public referendum.
Of course, the procedure by which Netanyahu plans to secure approval of whatever annexation he intends to propose is – like the extent, timing and context of the move – also obscure. Still, it is reasonable to expect that he will rely on the precedents of east Jerusalem in 1967 and the Golan Heights in 1981, and content himself with the requirement of a simple Knesset majority.
Those actions, by the way, did not make east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights as Israeli as are Ra’anana and Umm el-Fahm. In east Jerusalem, the Israeli educational curriculum has still not been imposed on Arab schools, and in both places, citizenship has not been imposed on non-Jewish residents but only made optional. More to the point, both of those prior actions were far less divisive than what Netanyahu appears to be intending to promote now. Moreover, both those votes occurred long before the passage of the Referendum Law.
That raises some serious questions. Why should the unilateral extension of sovereign territory now be considered a matter of lesser national importance than would be the contraction (even if part of a broader agreement) of sovereign territory? Why should expansion be subject to far less rigorous procedures than withdrawal? Why should the bar for conceding sovereign territory be set so much higher than the bar for acquiring sovereign territory?
Application of the provisions of Basic Law: Referendum to any proposed annexation, whatever its extent, will do nothing to mitigate the regional and international implications of such a move. Whatever those implications may be, nobody, except perhaps for US President Donald Trump, will endorse Israeli sovereignty over any annexed territory just because an unequivocal majority of Israeli voters formally approved bringing it under Israeli law, jurisdiction and administration. Nor will Palestinians be appeased just because annexation is “democratic.” Their reactions could well raise the immediate security risks and economic costs of continued Israeli control of territory Israel already controls.
Still, requiring a Knesset supermajority or at least an absolute majority plus a referendum will at least allow the prime minister to validate his longstanding claim that he speaks and acts on behalf of “the people.” Now would be very good time to put that claim to the test.

The writer is a principal research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies