With or without Netanyahu, West Bank annexation is on Israel’s agenda
During Israel’s election season, incumbent Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s promise to annex parts of the West Bank became the policy centrepiece of his campaign.
How will the ambiguous results of the September 17 vote, which awarded no party a clear path to forming a ruling majority in the 120-member Knesset, affect the prospects for Israel’s annexation of Hebron, Greater Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley and the scores of settlements that have long dominated 60% of the West Bank, Oslo’s Area C?
Netanyahu is not the first Israeli leader to support annexing parts of territories conquered by Israel in June 1967. Within days of that victory, the Knesset voted overwhelmingly to “extend Israeli law and jurisdiction and public administration to any part of the Land of Israel.”
The annexation incorporating not only Jordanian (East) Jerusalem but additional West Bank lands to the north and east were, after application of this administrative order by the national unity government headed by Labour Party leader Levi Eshkol, declared part of Israel’s “eternal capital.”
Then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin said Israel’s military conquests were an expression of God’s support for annexation of the entire West Bank but after the Likud leader’s surprise election victory in 1977, then Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan forced the new prime minister to refrain from the West Bank’s de jure annexation as long as the international diplomatic effort led by Washington continued.
In the following decades, more than 200 Israeli settlements were established and both the Syrian Golan Heights (in 1981) and Jerusalem (1980) were declared by Israel’s Knesset to be inseparable parts of Israel — annexed de jure as well as de facto.
Neither Israel’s declarations nor the associated policy of “creating facts” on the ground removed the areas from the negotiation agenda. Israeli decisions to annex Jerusalem and the Golan were declared “null and void” at the United Nations.
The territorial division of Jerusalem was a key element of diplomacy conducted by US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and an Israeli retreat from the Golan Heights was the focus of negotiations with Syria during the first years of this century.
However, the failure of those efforts created space for the re-emerging popularity of annexation in Israel and not only among Israel’s right wing.
Popular support for annexation has been legitimatised and energised by the Trump administration’s decisions to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, to recognise Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights — a formal move that Israel itself has yet to make — and to assert that “Israel has right to some but unlikely all” of the West Bank.
These diplomatic developments are conditioned on the success of Israel’s settlement drive and its insatiable appetite for West Bank land. Israelis living outside the borders of the state number more than 700,000. They comprise a significant part of Israel’s electorate whose needs as citizens — from schools to roads and property rights — are ignored by Israeli politicians at their peril.
Little wonder then that none of Israel’s most popular Zionist parties has seen any political advantage in opposing the current dynamic favouring annexation and avoiding unpopular discussion of territorial compromise and the creation of a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu’s re-election campaign sought to take political advantage of this hospitable environment for unilateral Israeli decisions regarding annexation. He promised to annex the Jordan Valley area and the northern Dead Sea (some 25% of the West Bank) immediately after his expected victory and later promised that, with US support, Israel would extend Israeli sovereignty to “all the settlements” in the West Bank, sites “important to Israel’s heritage” and other unspecified “vital” areas.
“There is one place where we can apply Israeli sovereignty immediately after the elections,” Netanyahu said days before the September election, “If I receive from you, citizens of Israel, a clear mandate to do so… today I announce my intention to apply, with the formation of the next government, Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea.”
Netanyahu’s patent for anticipated annexation in the Jordan Valley, a mixed city such as Hebron, and the remainder of the West Bank is based on the territorial division first expressed in the Oslo era — annexation of maximum West Bank territory (Area C) and the limitation of Palestinians to their Israeli-defined minimal territorial assets (Areas A and B) without Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s map of the Jordan Valley region offers important hints about Israel’s annexation strategy and its roots in the Oslo era division of the territory into Areas A, B and C. This 1995 agreement set aside 60% of the West Bank under exclusive Israeli security, settlement and administrative control. The annexation map employed by Netanyahu 24 years later is an exact replica of Oslo’s Jordan Valley map. Area C in its entirety is now annexed, excluding the exactly similar dimensions of Palestinian authority around Jericho outlined in the Oslo agreements.
Despite the noise generated by Netanyahu’s declarations, the Israeli public refused to award him carte blanche to make good on his annexation promises. A government based on the election results will nevertheless be sympathetic to his annexation agenda, particularly in the Jordan Valley, which is viewed as an essential security asset and in settlements comprising “Greater Jerusalem” and the suburban outposts east of Tel Aviv.
However, a coalition government of the sort now contemplated, as well as the prospect of a Netanyahu-led caretaker government until yet another election next spring if such efforts fail, limit Israel’s ability to take such momentous initiatives.
A sympathetic administration in Washington has done much to encourage Netanyahu’s public support for annexation. Trump’s growing domestic problems, however, may force White House attentions closer to home.
In any case, no matter who sits in the prime minister’s office, it is Israel’s appetite for the West Bank, rather than internationally sanctioned demand for Israeli withdrawal and Palestinian statehood, that promises to define the political and diplomatic landscape for quite some time to come.