Israel already annexed the West Bank a long time ago - opinion

International critics demonize Israel make a fundamental error in presenting it as evil. Hanlon’s razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

 ISRAEL’S AMBASSADOR to the UN Gilad Erdan speaks at a Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East in August. Last week, the UN General Assembly referred the West Bank issue to the World Court. (photo credit: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
ISRAEL’S AMBASSADOR to the UN Gilad Erdan speaks at a Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East in August. Last week, the UN General Assembly referred the West Bank issue to the World Court.
(photo credit: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Now that the UN General Assembly has referred the West Bank issue to the World Court, some people in Israel are, predictably, up in arms. There are again rumblings about possible annexation, especially with Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-Right government assuming power last week in Jerusalem.

In the intellectually lazy, standard-issue narrative that has taken hold on all sides (including among diplomats and the global media) annexation is viewed as something terrible Israel might do to the Palestinians. This is wrong on two counts, and the record should be set straight.

The first is that Israel has already incorporated the West Bank – de facto, and long ago. It has not formally annexed this not-very-large area in order to avoid provoking the region and the world – and mainly to avoid having to extend the right to vote for the Israeli parliament to the region’s three million Palestinians. This is a neat little trick that has worked well; it has fooled most people most of the time, including, amusingly, a few clueless Jewish nationalists who never got the memo and are now calling for annexation.

How is the West Bank already part of Israel?

To understand why the West Bank is already part of Israel, consider the following:

By law, Israelis abroad cannot vote in elections unless they are diplomats or other envoys of the state; generally only citizens present in Israeli sovereign territory on election day can vote. Are the half a million West Bank settlers allowed to vote? You bet they are, and in impressive numbers they do. That is in contrast to Palestinians who may be living in a village just across the road.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Efrat settlement located in the Gush Etzion region just outside of Jerusalem (credit: IGOR USDACHI)Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Efrat settlement located in the Gush Etzion region just outside of Jerusalem (credit: IGOR USDACHI)

Countries do not generally build towns and villages on territory that does not belong to them (and democratic countries certainly do not build anything for only one ethnic group only). Is Israel building Jewish “settlements” in the West Bank? It certainly has, and now it will again; there’s an accredited university there as well.

Israel controls all entry and exit to and from the overall West Bank, as well as passage between the Palestinian Authority autonomy islands. Israel controls the airspace and the water, natural resources and construction rights in most of the territory, and also provides the currency. Israel has the overriding security and justice authority, and even the autonomous islands are essentially subordinate.

Is there any other country with such a level of control on territory that isn’t part of it? Certainly not democratic countries; the US “territories” like Puerto Rico are an interesting case – and the locals there are US citizens. The situation is analogous mainly to the colonial era, which wound down in the middle of the previous century.

DEFENDERS OF the situation will say the occupation is necessary for security reasons, because otherwise the West Bank would fall to Hamas and terrorists would fire rockets from strategic highland at Israel’s major cities. That’s a very reasonable concern, given that this precise thing happened after Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005 – but it does not justify the settlements.

Apologists will argue that the occupation is temporary, until the Palestinians agree to Israel’s conditions for partition. But they will not agree to Israel’s terms, for reasons we shall soon explain. Moreover, the excuse of temporariness is preposterous after 55 years, with no end in sight and the new government preparing to further deepen the settlement enterprise (it plans to legitimize illegal outposts deep inside the territory).

Some argue that most settlers live quite close to the old pre-1967 border, and incorporating them only, would usefully expand Israel’s narrow “waist,” which at its narrowest point is less than 20 kilometers (about 10 miles) wide. But this does not apply to the 100,000 settlers who live deep inside these territories – well beyond the security barrier established in the 2000s (and which eats into about 15% of the West Bank); the purpose of those settlements, and most of what the new government plans, is to make any partition impossible.

Some right-wingers now want Israel to stand supposedly strong by formally annexing so-called Area C, which is the 60% or so of the West Bank that surrounds the autonomy areas – an unwieldy map created by the 1990s Oslo Accords.

I doubt these people know the map. Such an annexation, which would leave islands of non-annexed Palestinian areas surrounded by “Israeli” territory, would not produce what a reasonable person would consider a partition. If anything, it would invite comparisons to South Africa’s apartheid-era Bantustans. It is only slightly less childish than suggesting Israel annex everything except the homes of Palestinians.

WHICH LEADS us to the second reason the annexation “threat” – and indeed the world concerns about it – has logic backwards.

If the current government actually lasts four years and deepens the settlement project, the situation will gradually escalate. The Palestinian Authority is likely to collapse – or at least move on from 87-year old leader Mahmoud Abbas. There may well be a renewed Palestinian uprising. And before long, there will be a growing Palestinian demand for Israel to really annex the West Bank – all of it, giving the Palestinians the same voting rights enjoyed by the two million Arab citizens in Israel proper.

This is the likely outcome of an occupation that includes colonization of the kind that is taking place. This is the only formal annexation scheme that will actually mean anything, and it will be backed by the entire world, probably with economic sanctions.

The result will be a country of some 13 million that is barely over half Jewish – and you can expect further conflicts, including between secular and religious Jews, that will cause mass emigration among the sector currently responsible for Israel’s economic and high-tech miracle.

The result will be a new country called Palestine, not Israel. This understanding of demographic reality (and the leverage it bestows) is why the Palestinians have not made things easy for Israel by seriously engaging with previous peace and partition offers made by more intelligent governments.

An Israel that wants to survive in the long term should freeze all settlement activity beyond the security barrier line – and project to all audiences that its strategic imperative is a secure way to separate from most of the West Bank.

In the wake of last week’s UN decision, the World Court could do peace a major service by expediting procedures and nudging Israel in this direction.

Annexation is not something Israel should threaten – but something it should strenuously seek to avoid. Instead, under the new government, it is headed off a cliff in a way that can only leave its enemies incredulous with joy. It is a genuine failure of democracy – and a very flawed one at that, because millions of Palestinians are effectively residents who cannot vote.

International critics who have made a career out of demonizing Israel make a fundamental error when they present Zionism as fanatical and the occupation as fundamentally evil. I refer them to Hanlon’s razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

The writer is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press, and is a managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him at twitter.com/perry_dan.