Israel’s momentous decision: The settlements or the Saudis?

While no Israeli leader has done more to promote closer ties with the Gulf States than he, Netanyahu is pursuing an “annexation first” strategy.

A SAUDI ARABIAN flag. (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel is rapidly approaching a momentous decision.
Should our new unity government move quickly to apply Israeli sovereignty over swaths of hotly contested territory known in the Bible as “Judea and Samaria,” and to the international community as the “West Bank” of the Jordan River? Or should we defer discussions of unilateral annexation for the time being and place a higher priority on establishing full peace treaties with Gulf Arab states that are steadily warming towards normalization?
Put another away: Do we want the settlements now, or peace with the Saudis?
It is clear where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands. While no Israeli leader has done more to promote closer ties with the Gulf States than he, Netanyahu is pursuing an “annexation first” strategy. He believes that Israel has an “historic opportunity” to establish permanent sovereignty over up to 30% of the biblical heartland with the consent and coordination of the Trump administration. It is, he says, “an opportunity that should not be missed,” one that will certainly evaporate next January if US President Donald Trump loses re-election and Joe Biden becomes president.
It is not clear where Defense Minister (and alternate Prime Minister) Benny Gantz stands. He, too, is on record as supporting annexation and signed a coalition agreement allowing for a vote of the Knesset on the issue as early as July. But he has also said that he would only move forward “in coordination with the international community.” Both in public and in private, he has expressed a desire to sequence events in such a way as to maximize the opportunity for peace with the Gulf States. What’s more, he has expressed deep admiration for the role Jordan’s King Abdullah has played as a peacemaker, declaring on the campaign trail last October, “I’m pledging here that when I lead the State of Israel, I’ll do all in my power to strengthen the peace agreement with Jordan and move relations with Jordan forward.”
A front-page story in the Hebrew edition of Israel Hayom on May 27 argued that Israeli leaders do not really have to choose. Citing unnamed sources in the region, the article suggested that Arab leaders have privately signaled both Washington and Jerusalem that while they will publicly criticize any Israeli move towards annexation, they will actually be fine with it.
Is that true? Not according to Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who warns annexation “will lead to a massive conflict with Jordan.” Could that include suspension of its peace treaty with Israel. “I don’t want to make threats and create an atmosphere of loggerheads,” he told a German publication, “but we are considering all options.”
OVER THE past several years, I have traveled extensively throughout the Arab world, on my own as well as hosting delegations of American Evangelical leaders on bridge-building trips. Even though I am a dual US-Israeli citizen (and have two sons who have served in the IDF), I have been afforded the remarkable opportunity to build friendships with – and spend many hours in private conversations with – Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and their most senior advisers and cabinet members, as well as senior officials in Bahrain.
I specifically asked my contacts about the Israel Hayom article. One Arab official after another gave me an earful about how completely off-base it was.
“Not only is this article not true or accurate, it’s quite literally the opposite of what is happening,” one senior Arab official in a Gulf state told me. “Moderate Arab countries are warning of the consequences of annexation.”
To clarify, I asked the official to comment on the accuracy of this statement. What if the Israeli government doesn’t annex all 30% of Area C, but “simply” decides to annex something that everyone knows will ultimately stay in Israel’s hands in a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, the cities of Ariel and/or Ma’ale Adumim, for example? While there would be a great deal of criticism in the Arab world and Europe at first, wouldn’t it eventually blow over, as with the American Embassy move?
“No, this is not accurate,” the Arab official replied emphatically. “This is delusional thinking. It will not just blow over – it will harm what Israel claims it wants, better relationships with Gulf Arabs.”
Not a single one of my Arab contacts are telling me they will be fine with Israeli annexation. To the contrary, all of them are telling me this will seriously rupture relations with Israel. What’s more, they are baffled by the timing.
“I can’t understand why Israel is doing this now,” another Arab official told me. “Arab relations with Israel are so good, better than ever. The prospect of historic breakthroughs with the Gulf states are improving every day. The last thing we need is new tensions with the Israelis. We have too much on our plates. The COVID crisis has been devastating. Our attention is totally focused on protecting the health of our people and re-opening our economies. Who benefits from creating a new crisis now?”
I was particularly struck by what one Arab official asked me.
“Why take the focus off [Palestinian leader Mahmoud] Abbas? He’s the one refusing to make peace. Why let him off the hook? The Trump plan gives the Palestinians four years to make a deal with Israel. Why doesn’t Israel let the clock run and show that Abbas isn’t serious about peace. To pursue annexation will shift all the focus to Israel, which will be subject to global condemnation.”
In my face-to-face meetings with Arab leaders throughout the region, I have been astounded by how impressed they are by Israel’s economic progress, technological innovation and military strength. I have also been stunned – and encouraged – by how actively and seriously they are considering making steps towards full peace treaties with Israel.
Thus, while I would love to see the day that more of the biblical land of Judea and Samaria is peacefully incorporated into the State of Israel, count me as one who thinks our first priority should be establishing historic peace treaties, economic ties and strategic security alliances with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and even Morocco and Sudan.
To squander such opportunities would be a momentous mistake.
The writer is a dual US-Israeli citizen who lives with his family in Jerusalem. A New York Times best-selling author with some five million copies in print, his most recent political thriller, The Jerusalem Assassin, explores the prospects of an historic peace summit between Israel and Saudi Arabia, brokered by an American president.