Palestinian Conflict: Is 2020 ground zero for West Bank annexation?

Country moved from settlement freeze to sovereignty plans in the space of a decade.

A TRUCK passes a small Israeli community in the West Bank (photo credit: REUTERS)
A TRUCK passes a small Israeli community in the West Bank
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel is likely to have an unprecedented window of opportunity over the next ten months to apply Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank settlements in Area C.
The actualization of annexation, small or large, could make 2020 one of the more pivotal junctures in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At issue is not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political future, but rather US President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and his persistent courting of the right-wing Christian and Jewish voters.
Trump’s support for Israel, particularly his relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, is so central to his reelection campaign that it is part of his stump speech at most of his rallies.
So it’s hard to imagine his administration risking losing voters by picking a fight with Israel over the annexation of West Bank settlements in the next ten months.
The Trump administration has already signaled that such a presumption could be correct. It has never chastised Netanyahu for his annexation pledges or made it appear in any way that such talk had created tension with Washington. The only difference of opinion has been on the technical issue of whether he had discussed those plans with the US.
Netanyahu’s ability to so bluntly speak of annexation comes in the aftermath of at least two years of increasingly supportive US statements with regard to the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria.
Initially, in 2017, the Trump administration spoke of the need to restrain settlement growth because it was unhelpful to peace. But that metamorphosized within a year to a new set of talking points on settlement activity, in which the US thanked Israel for taking its concerns about such construction into account.
Israel “has made clear that going forward, its intent is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes the president’s concerns into consideration,” the State Department said in 2018, in a puzzling response to queries about continued settlement activity. At no point did it clarify what the president’s concerns were.
Instead, it rejected the idea that settlements were a stumbling block to peace. It was a linguistic shift that allowed for a larger philosophical sea-change that opened the door to Netanyahu’s annexation talk. If settlement activity was not a stumbling block, then it follows that what happens with the settlements does not impact the peace process. If this is so, then there is no need for constrained activity.
In keeping with this idea, in 2019, when it seemed that the US might be on the edge of publishing its peace plan, statements by its officials opened the door to the possibility that a demand for Israeli settlement withdrawal might not be part of that peace vision.
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman noted in an October interview with Arutz 7 that the plan did not involve the uprooting of Jews or Arabs. “I don’t believe that there is a realistic plan that can be implemented that will require anyone, Jew or Arab, to be forced to leave their home,” Friedman said.
WHEN QUIZZED in September by The Jerusalem Post on the US position on Jordan Valley annexation statements, Friedman said, “the statements made by the prime minister are ones we don’t see as being inconsistent with a political solution.”
Former US special envoy Jason Greenblatt hinted at normalization of the settlements by distancing himself from the term “settlements” noting his preference for communities or neighborhoods of Judea and Samaria. In November, to bolster Israel in its international diplomatic battle against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Washington clarified that it held Israeli settlement activity to be legal when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that such civilian communities were not “inconsistent with international law.”
The US about-face on settlement activity comes as the international community has hardened its stance against the settlements, with the International Criminal Court’s Chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda stating that she believed Israeli settlement activity was the equivalent of a war crime.
It’s a preliminary statement, the first of its kind for the ICC. An actual decision on the issue could be years away. As an initial step, an ICC pre-trial chamber will determine within the first four months of the year whether the court has jurisdiction over the West Bank. If it finds in favor of jurisdiction, then an examination of the matter is expected to follow.
Israel, however, holds that its activity is neither illegal nor a war crime.
To show that the ICC has no bearing on Israeli sovereignty plans, in the aftermath of Bensouda’s statement, Netanyahu has continued to speak of annexation and has convened a committee to plan for Jordan Valley sovereignty.
But the ICC’s initial steps with regard to a war crimes suit appear to be less immediately relevant for Israel, than the possibility of a Democratic win in November 2020, a move that could likely reset US policy back to the pre-Trump era when it comes to settlements. The specter of that more pressing deadline would almost demand action soon.
Few Israeli leaders would want to risk relations with a new US president by annexing some or all of the West Bank settlements in the first months of a new American administration.
Waiting out a Democratic presidency would mean that Israel might have to move forward with annexation in the aftermath of an ICC ruling on the matter, rather than prior to it.
Any steps toward annexation, therefore, are best taken this year while Trump is still in office. But a new Israeli government is needed for such a decision, because under Israeli law, an interim government cannot apply sovereignty.
One could not have predicted at the start of this decade that it would end, as it has, with the question of annexation.
In January 2010, Israel was in the midst of a 10-month moratorium on settlement housing starts. It was the most massive freeze on settlement activity in the history of the movement.
The freeze came in the aftermath of concessions by former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert (2006-2009) to the Palestinians, primarily during the 2008 Annapolis process. Olmert was the first and only prime minister to accept the idea of a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines. He was in power in the second half of a decade marked by the 2005 Israeli destruction of 25 settlements, decisions to remove West Bank outposts and a presumption that more settlement evacuations were to come.
Among former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s significant achievements during his time in office (2001-2006) was a letter from former US president George Bush promising that Israel could retain its large population centers in Area C of the West Bank, known as the settlement blocs. Implied was the acceptance of the idea that Israel would be uprooting isolated settlements.
When Netanyahu came into office in 2009, the question was how to minimize the number of settlements that would be withdrawn. His initial decision to impose a freeze on settler housing starts at the end of that year, initially appeared to place him in the league of Sharon and Olmert, both former Likud members who changed party affiliation to form the Kadima Party.
The application of the freeze to within and without the blocs, made it seem suddenly as if all settlements were vulnerable. It also firmly linked the settlement freeze with the possibility of peace talks, underscoring the notion of settlements as a stumbling block to peace, something that had not been part of the initial Oslo Accords of the 1990s.
Netanyahu in 2010 had already pledged allegiance to the idea of a two-state resolution to the conflict and spoke openly about a future Palestinian state, albeit a demilitarized one.
Statements Netanyahu made at the time would make him sound to the left of Blue and White Party head Benny Gantz today. In a conversation with foreign journalists in January 2010, for example, Netanyahu specifically linked the idea of settlements with peace. “The fact that we’ve taken this unprecedented step [to freeze housing starts], I think should disabuse anyone who thinks that Israel is not ready for peace.”
BUT TWO MEETINGS held between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2010 did not yield results. Israel did not extend the freeze, ending it in November.
Settlers, right-wing politicians, activists and Christians from abroad gathered on a rocky field in the Revava settlement to celebrate the lifting of the freeze by releasing balloons and blowing large shofarot (ram’s horns).
Given former US president Barack Obama’s “no tolerance” attitude toward settlement activity and his determination to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it almost seemed as if their celebration was likely to be as fleeting as the balloons that disappeared above their heads.
Instead, the ceremony truly did mark the start of a tumultuous ten years when ideas of how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict  – which had dominated the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century – were abandoned.
Talk of pending peace processes continued, but no plan actually got off the ground. There were only two significant attempts at US led talks under the former Obama administration: one in 2010, and another nine-month process from July 2013 to April 2014. Neither achieved results, and were so informal as to not even be given a name.
Despite the proclamations and a 2019 gathering in Bahrain, Trump is likely to end his first term in office without ever publishing such a plan.
In the interim, however, the entire tenor of the conversation changed.
The Palestinians shook off the element of the Oslo Process which said that Palestinian statehood would be achieved only through negotiations. Instead they pursued unilateral statehood, achieving success at the United Nations, where the General Assembly granted them de-facto statehood in 2012 by upgrading their status to that of non-member state. Effectively, for eight years of the last decade, the Palestinian Authority acted at the UN, as if it was a state, albeit one without voting power in the General Assembly. This includes the ability to sign on to UN treaties and statutes. It was a right the PA exercised over 80 times – including with the Rome Statute that governs the ICC.
Just as the Palestinians separated peace process from statehood, Israel moved to distinguish between peace and the settlements. It also reversed the order by which it sought peace with the Arab world. Instead of pursuing peace with the Palestinians first and the Arab world second, it has now argued that peace must come first with the Arab world and then with the Palestinians.
ON THE GROUND in the West Bank, the battle for control of Area C heated up. The idea of settlement blocs was erased, as Israel stopped speaking of territorial concessions and instead spoke of retaining all the settlements, all of which are located in Area C.
Already in 2013, Netanyahu began to promise that he would not uproot any of settlers in the pursuit of peace. The government abandoned all past lexicons of restrained settlement activity, which had dominated the diplomatic discourse in the past, and instead began to push forward with building plans.
Specifically, Netanyahu took steps to improve the legal status of the settlements and the outposts. He sought to undo the influence of a 2005 report commissioned by Sharon’s government and authored by attorney Talia Sasson, which claimed that the outposts were illegal. In contrast, Netanyahu’s government commissioned a report authored by legal expert and former Supreme Court Judge Edmond Levy. Completed in 2012, it stated that settlement activity was legal and spoke of how to authorize the outposts, viewing them not as illegal but as fledgling Jewish communities.
The decade might have been marked by famous scenes of outpost evacuations – Migron and Ulpana in 2012, Amona in 2017 and Netiv Haavot in 2018 – but they were all based on decisions from the High Court of Justice in response to petitions by left-wing organizations.
The evacuations gave the visual feeling of action. But underneath the surface, a decade that began with the presumption that the outposts would be removed, ended with a process of their legalization. Gone was the hesitancy to establish new settlements; three were created in the last two years. This included one that was completely new and not a transformation of an existing community.
Legal reforms included passage of a law to retroactively authorize settler homes on private Palestinian property, which is still under adjudication by the High Court of Justice. That legislation and other reforms whittled away at 40 years of Israeli case law protecting the rights of Palestinian private property owners. Such changes were reflected in state responses to High Court of Justice petitions. Increasingly, the debate was less about two states and more about the normalization of life for the increasing population of Jewish Israelis living in Judea and Samaria, which will likely reach at least 450,000 by the end of this year.
Over the last seven years, talk of settlement retention has become passé, replaced by multiple and frequent annexation campaigns. During the last government, it almost seemed as if everyone – save for Netanyahu – had one.
As the campaign battle to retain his seat has stiffened, so has Netanyahu’s annexation talk, which moved from pledges not to uproot settlements to clear annexation promises during the second election cycle.
To the Israeli cynic, it has seemed as if his annexation talk, which has grown stronger in the last weeks, is a desperate attempt to distract voters from his legal troubles.
Netanyahu has mentioned it in almost every campaign speech.
On Wednesday night, the prime minister began his immunity talk by setting forth a diplomatic agenda that includes peace with the Arab world, sovereignty over the settlements and the setting of Israel’s final borders. It was a 180-degree turnaround for the conversation of settlement freeze and Palestinian peace talks. One could say that the dramatic shift between the last decade and this one marks the difference between a prime minister under threat of criminal prosecution and one who is not. One could say that it is the difference between a US led by Obama versus one led by Trump. Or, simply, the lucky juxtaposition of an Israeli election with an American one.
But it is more likely that the decade-long ice age that the peace process has undergone has taken its toll. What is significant is not why Netanyahu has said what he said, but whether or not he has identified a new diplomatic discourse.
If so, it is likely that any Israeli right-wing leader – Netanyahu or someone else – could capitalize on the changes in the Israeli political discourse and the diplomatic horizon of the next ten months, to resolve the status of the West Bank settlements – even if the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks remain a pipe dream.