Why Netanyahu is backing West Bank annexation

Having raised the issue of entitlement, Netanyahu has increased post-election pressure on himself to make good on his declaration.
Sunday 28/04/2019
A part of the Israeli settlement of Efrat situated on the southern outskirts of the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem (background). (AFP)
Risky venture. A part of the Israeli settlement of Efrat situated on the southern outskirts of the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem (background). (AFP)

More than half a century after its conquest of the West Bank, Israel’s intentions have been unmasked.

Just days before his re-election, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu pledged to apply Israeli sovereignty to the more than 200 settlements in the West Bank with a combined population of close to 500,000.

“We will go to the next phase to extend Israeli sovereignty. I will impose sovereignty,” he said, “but I will not distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated settlements. From my perspective, any point of settlement is Israeli and we have responsibility as the Israeli government. I will not uproot anyone and I will not transfer sovereignty to the Palestinians.”

Netanyahu’s declaration in support of the annexation of West Bank settlements, which control approximately 60% of the 5,500 sq.km territory, puts the issue at the top of Israel’s post-election settlement and occupation agenda.

Yet, as Netanyahu noted, formal extension of Israeli sovereignty, however significant, is simply the latest chapter of an extraordinary saga that has unfolded in the face of almost unanimous international opposition since June 1967.

Israel’s settlement enterprise is the most noteworthy and visible tool of its intention to remain sovereign in the West Bank and Netanyahu’s recent declaration is a historic landmark in Israel’s policy of creating facts on the ground. The realities that Israel has created in Jerusalem and the Golan have been applauded by the Trump administration, offering Netanyahu a tantalising opportunity to end whatever little ambiguity exists about Israel’s intentions in the West Bank.

The relentless expansion of settlements has always been the best barometer of Israel’s intentions. Israel effectively annexed East Jerusalem within a week of its June 1967 victory — without even one settlement or settler in place.

On June 27, 1967, the Knesset passed legislation empowering the government to extend “Israeli law jurisdiction and public administration over the entire area of the Land of Israel.” This legislative framework for annexing all of Israel’s conquests was immediately applied to the area known today as East Jerusalem and in 1981 to the Golan Heights.

The Trump administration, in a historic break with its predecessors and international consensus, recently recognised these actions. Updated American government maps show the Golan as Israeli.

This patent of de jure annexation of territory captured in war was not a new departure for Israel. Israeli law and jurisdiction had been similarly extended over portions of the Galilee and Negev captured during the 1948 war. Neither of those areas was included in the Jewish state created by the original UN partition resolution.

One month before the October 1973 war, Moshe Dayan declared his “Five No’s” — Gaza will not be Egyptian; the Golan will not be Syrian; Jerusalem will not be Arab; a Palestinian state will not be established; Israel will not abandon settlements Israelis have established.

The declaration was a political milestone on the path to de facto annexation. The deluxe plan that resulted — one that every Israeli leader has followed for the last half century — made it possible to join the territories to Israel without annexing them and without giving the Palestinians under permanent occupation the rights of Israeli citizenship.

No diplomatic framework for resolving the conflict — from Menachem Begin’s autonomy plan to the Oslo Accords — has presented a fundamental challenge to these conditions. Now, even the minimal and inadequate constraints on Israel afforded by the lapsed international commitment to ending occupation, removing settlements and establishing a sovereign Palestinian state, have all but disappeared from the diplomatic agenda, creating opportunities for the likes of Trump and Netanyahu.

For most of the international community, annexation has been viewed as a far-off possibility to be offset by two state diplomacy. Israel has never viewed the opportunity posed by occupation in this manner.

How to minimise the consequences of annexation demographically while exploiting the territorial and security advantages annexation promised is the central dilemma and challenge that Israel has been facing for the last half century. It has shaped not only the policy of creating facts but also successive efforts to segregate and limit autonomous Palestinian power over their destiny.

The fundamental Israeli objective has always been to undermine the ability of Palestinians to act in a sovereign manner while providing Israel with the territorial, settlement and security benefits of permanent rule.

After half a century of success in this dynamic effort, Netanyahu declares that he is now poised to embark on the latest chapter of this programme — offering settlers and settlements the marginal procedural and administrative benefits of formal de jure annexation while, with Washington’s assistance, creating a new international diplomatic context — promising what Dayan declared in 1973, Begin offered at Camp David 1979  and what the world applauded on the White House lawn in September 1993 — autonomy for the Palestinian people of the West Bank, coupled with unbridled Israeli settlement and territorial and security control, and de facto recognition of a Palestine government in Gaza (a la 1949).

Israel has worked with great success since the first days of occupation to take all the sovereign “space” created by its military victory while preventing the democratic and egalitarian aspects of a one-state solution that its proponents find so appealing. The resurgence of interest in a one-state option — half a century after Israel became the sole sovereign between the river and the sea — as a vehicle for Palestinian liberation fails to take account of this history.

Threatening Israel with a one-state solution misses this vital point. Israel has devoted more energy than friend and foe alike over half a century to evade the trap of a democratic, secular state in the Palestinian territories. Preventing the empowerment of Palestinians, in any governing framework, and annexation of settlers and settlements are the driving force of its one-state policies. To suggest that Israel will somehow be undone by the demands of politically integrating Palestinians into a post-occupation system mistakes a preferred outcome for a realistic one.

For Israel and its allies, annexation validates and legitimises any question of Jewish entitlement to Palestine. It signifies a moral dimension to Israeli rule absent from the internationally accepted definition of Israel’s role as an “occupying” or “administering” power.

Having raised this issue of entitlement, Netanyahu has increased post-election pressure on himself to make good on his declaration. If he fails to act, he will accentuate widespread doubts about the very entitlement he has asserted.

Netanyahu can be expected to argue that formal annexation is a consequence of Arab rejection of the idea of Israel, whatever its borders. In the rejectionist era of Khartoum, this claim was more tenable. Today, however, it has the distinct ring of unvarnished cynicism, welcome on Pennsylvania Avenue but nowhere else.