Policy May Invite Israel’s Right to Annex West Bank Territory. That Would
By Dennis Ross and
The Washington Post
March 29, 2019
President Trump’s decision
to recognize Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights was applauded
across the political spectrum in Israel. While
criticized internationally, including by Arab leaders, Israelis saw it as
acknowledging an important reality: that this strategic plateau cannot be
returned to Syria, especially in light of a catastrophic war in which roughly
500,000 have been killed, Bashar al-Assad gassed his own people, and Iran seized
the opportunity to embed itself and Shiite militias in the country.
Those on the Israeli right saw it less for its security
value and more for the precedent it would set for being able to annex much of
the West Bank. The nationalist leader Naftali Bennett thanked
Trump for his decision, claiming the Golan was now Israel’s forever and
then added, “The land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel.” Golan,
pointedly, was not part of historic Palestine or Israel, but of course the West
Bank is — and that is what Bennett was signaling.
Perhaps because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is competing
for right-wing votes, his own statements imply he is moving in a similar
direction. Until now, Netanyahu has resisted moves on the right to push
legislation to annex territory in the West Bank, but upon returning to Israel
after seeing Trump, Netanyahu
declared: “Everyone says you can’t hold an occupied territory, but
this proves you can. If occupied in a defensive war, then it’s ours."
Will Netanyahu, if reelected, push for annexation in the
West Bank? Time will tell. At this point, it is difficult to predict the outcome
of the vote, scheduled for April 9. There is, however, only one scenario in
which Netanyahu is likely to remain prime minister and that is as the head of a
very narrow right-wing government.
Gantz and the other leaders of the Blue and White party have already
declared they will not join a government if Netanyahu heads it, because the
attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, has
declared his intent to indict Netanyahu.
For the likely right-wing participants in such a narrow
that now includes the successor to Meir Kahane’s avowedly racist party,
there are no such qualms. Their ideology counts far more than Mandelblit’s
likely prosecution; in fact, they know it increases their leverage on Netanyahu
because, if he fails to satisfy them on their policy demands, they can bring
down the government and leave him facing the attorney general — no longer as
As such, a Netanyahu-led government with a very slim
majority will spell trouble for a Trump peace plan, even in Israel. Ironically,
the administration, which gave Netanyahu a political boost with the Golan
declaration, seems to have been acting on an assumption: that Netanyahu would
win, form a broad-based government and, thus, be able to say “yes” to their
plan. If Netanyahu were not facing the prospect of indictment, that might well
have been the most likely outcome of the election. But the looming indictment
and the coming together of the Blue and White party, with three ex-military
chiefs of staff as its leaders along with former minister Yair Lapid, has
altered the election calculus.
Although the election math may now be uncertain, what is
not uncertain is that Netanyahu’s only pathway to remaining prime minister
depends on leading a narrow right-wing government. And, in such a government,
Netanyahu is unlikely to be able to forestall the legislation already being
pushed by those on the right to annex parts of the West Bank.
Any annexations in the West Bank would doom the Trump plan
not only with the Palestinians — who are already poised to reject it — but
with Arab leaders, as well. They cannot put themselves in a position of
acquiescing in the surrender of what they (and their constituency) perceive to
be Palestinian territory by unilateral Israeli steps.
Far beyond the implications for the Trump plan, Israeli
annexations planned by the right are designed not to be part of designated blocs
consistent with a two-state outcome. On the contrary, once begun, these
annexations would gradually be applied to more of the West Bank, making Israeli
separation from Palestinians increasingly difficult. True, a two-state outcome
is not possible any time soon, but separation can at least preserve it as a
possibility for the future.
But a right-wing government allowed to pursue its agenda
will end that possibility by combining annexation with accelerated building
outside the settlement blocs — a mix that would make it impossible to separate
Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. When that happens, the only option
will be one state for two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinians are
sure to make “one person, one vote” their mantra, and sooner or later, that
will resonate here and elsewhere.
Perhaps the Trump administration does not think in these
terms. But if it wants its plan to have any chance, it needs to announce soon
that, regardless of the outcome of the Israeli election, it will oppose
unilateral Israeli steps to annex territory in the West Bank. Only this would
enable Netanyahu to stand up to the right and say we cannot afford to alienate
the Trump administration given all it has done for us.
Trump has done a lot for Israel — it is time he does
something to preserve Israel’s future as a Jewish democratic state.