Washington offers blank cheque but decision of when to annex largely depends on Israel’s politics
The US and Israeli teams working on annexation have been announced, followed by an initial meeting in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. Their mission: to draw a map of the West Bank reflecting an unprecedented US-Israel agreement on the extent of annexation of territories conquered by Israel in June 1967.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu explained that “the mapping is under way in order to allow for the application of Israeli law on these areas and later American recognition as well.”
Netanyahu certainly welcomes US President Donald Trump’s historic readiness to support annexation. However, the major constraint to an Israeli decision to annex all or parts of the West Bank is not — now or ever — the view in Washington but rather the multifaceted considerations driving Israeli policy in the West Bank.
The legal and administrative infrastructure for annexation — at least in Israeli eyes — was established within a week of Israel’s conquest in 1967 when the Knesset empowered the government to extend “Israeli law, jurisdiction and public administration over the entire area of the Land of Israel.” The measure passed with little debate. Only two members of Knesset — from the Communist Party — voted against the measure.
Although empowered to annex all its conquests — from Sharm el-Sheikh to Jebel el-Sheikh — the government limited the extension of sovereignty de jure to Jordanian — rebranded as “united” Jerusalem — notably including the Holy Basin and the airport at Kalandia near Ramallah.
Israel has always coveted the land it conquered in June 1967 but not the Palestinians who lived there. The issue of annexation — and the associated challenge of minimising its effect on the powers of the Jewish majority — have long been near the top of Israel’s political agenda.
In 1977, Moshe Dayan, the Israeli most responsible for Israel’s policies of occupation, won a commitment from the new prime minister Menachem Begin not to annex West Bank de jure as a condition for joining Begin’s Likud-led government.
Begin’s victory over the Labour Party was an earthquake in Israel’s political history, all the more so because of Dayan’s post-election agreement to serve under Begin’s leadership. Dayan’s partnership with Begin was an unambiguous illustration of the broad Israeli consensus for remaining permanently in the West Bank, no matter how the issues of sovereignty or international recognition were decided.
Building on Begin’s lifelong commitment to Israel’s sovereign control over “Judea and Samaria,” the direction of all subsequent Israeli policies — from the “autonomy” plan mooted at Camp David to Yitzhak Rabin’s offer of “less than a state” weeks before his assassination to Trump’s conditional support for an ersatz state — has been based on annexation of approximately half of the West Bank and its Palestinian analogue — the destruction of the territorial foundations for Palestinian sovereignty west of the Jordan River.
The Trump administration’s support for annexation removes a giant obstacle that has constrained if not prevented Israel’s appetite to rule as sovereign de jure over the West Bank territory.
As a consequence of the Knesset action in June 1967, an administrative decision is all that is needed today in order to apply Israeli law, that is to annex, to any additional part of the West Bank.
Trump’s views are not the deciding factor as Israel contemplates annexation. Both Jerusalem and the Golan Heights were annexed by acts of the Knesset without US approval or, until the Trump era, Washington’s formal acknowledgement.
Israel has spent decades removing territorial, demographic and international obstacles to annexation. The intention to remain as the sole sovereign power west of the Jordan has provided the essential policy framework for all of its occupation policies.
The placement of Jewish settlements and the construction of roads connecting them while “bypassing” Palestinian towns, the 2005 decision to evacuate Gaza and support for limited Palestinian self-rule outlined in the autonomy, Oslo, US President George H.W. Bush and now Trump plans are all part of a grand design intended to consolidate sole Israeli suzerainty west of the Jordan River at Palestinian expense, while reducing the demographic “cost” borne by Israel.
The maps detailing the joint US-Israel understanding for this “deluxe annexation” — the most land with the fewest Palestinians — have already been prepared and agreed. The membership of the US “negotiating” team under US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and his support for Israel’s annexation of Hebron announced at the outset of the talks, set to last only one week, reflect Washington’s unprecedented endorsement of this objective.
Yet the reasons underlying Dayan’s opposition to de jure annexation are still relevant today and they continue to act as the primary restraint on Israel’s appetite for the West Bank.
Israel’s ability to manage this process and not the views in Washington, no matter how important, remains the most potent obstacle to annexation. Over almost five decades of Israeli rule, Israel has created facts on the ground that increasingly enable Israeli leaders to accept the costs of formal annexation.
Trump and Friedman are important cheerleaders but the complicated decision to annex remains, as it always has, in Israel’s hands.