Now That He Can Annex West Bank Land, Will Netanyahu Do It?

(Bloomberg) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been promising for more than a year to annex West Bank land the Palestinians want for a state. With Donald Trump in the White House, he’s now got the backing he needs to turn that pipedream of the Israeli right and nightmare of the Palestinians into reality. The economic carnage of the coronavirus has cast a shadow on Trump’s re-election prospects, however, and Netanyahu has to move fast if he wants to be assured of getting this done under the aegis of the U.S. president’s Middle East peace plan.

Then again, he might not really want to, and may have been using annexation as a campaign rallying cry during a drawn-out election cycle. It’s clear to Netanyahu that such an explosive proposition would soon come up against the harsher reality of its consequences, including the risk of reigniting violence.

Now That He Can Annex West Bank Land, Will Netanyahu Do It?

What’s at stake?

Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war. Netanyahu’s predecessors shied from extending Israeli sovereignty there to avoid the international uproar that would have ensued from what is widely regarded as a violation of an international treaty forbidding annexation of occupied territories. Israel argues that its conduct in the West Bank doesn’t contravene the Fourth Geneva Convention because the land was captured from Jordan and was never under Palestinian sovereignty.

Today, more than 400,000 Jews live there among 2.6 million Palestinians who claim the West Bank as the heart of their hoped-for state. In addition, more than 200,000 Jews have also settled in east Jerusalem, which Israel annexed shortly after capturing it, too, from Jordan in 1967, alongside more than 300,000 Palestinians. The Palestinians say annexation of West Bank land would deal an irrevocable blow to their dream of an independent, viable homeland.

What has Netanyahu vowed to do?

Netanyahu has said he’d like to extend Israeli sovereignty over all of the roughly 130 heavily fortified settlements, dozens of satellite outposts, and “other areas important to our security, our heritage, and our future.” Under the Trump plan, that would account for about 30% of the West Bank, leaving the Palestinians with non-contiguous enclaves that would be joined by a system of tunnels and bridges.

While Netanyahu has spoken repeatedly of applying Israeli sovereignty -- the dictionary definition of annexation -- a close ally says what he’d like to do initially is to extend Israeli law to those areas, in place of the military law that applies to both Israelis and Palestinians. Actual annexation of the land would come next.

What does his future partner in government say?

On Thursday, Israel is expected to swear in a joint administration teaming Netanyahu and political rival Benny Gantz. Gantz, a former military chief, hasn’t given a clear statement of where he stands on annexation. But he’s suggested his support hinges on its being carried out in cooperation with Israel’s partners in the Middle East in the interest of regional stability, while avoiding unilateral steps. It’s not clear such cooperation is available.

What do the Palestinians say?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has ordered the formation of a task force to recommend a plan of action against any Israeli annexation move. Annexing territory in the West Bank could bolster Palestinian war crime allegations against Israel at the International Criminal Court, which has said it intends to investigate those claims.

All agreements with Israel will be considered null and void should it act on Netanyahu’s pledges, said Azzam al-Ahmad, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s decision-making executive committee. That’s an oft-repeated threat that would in effect mean the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina implied that violence could be in the offing. “There will be no security and stability without giving the Palestinian people their rights which have received international legitimacy,” he said.

How would the Palestinian economy be affected?

Palestinian businesses are concerned about investment as Israel’s annexation talk mounts. Ismat Quzmar, a researcher at the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute, said annexation would constrain space available for work and investment. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics reported last month that it expects gross domestic product to contract 14% from last year due to coronavirus-related lockdowns in the West Bank and Israel.

Samir Huleileh, a Palestinian businessman and economist, says the export of dates, which account for a big slice of Palestinian sales abroad, may take a beating. Will investors be required to pay taxes to the Israeli government, a prospect that might put off some? No one has said anything to the Palestinians, Huleileh said.

Donor nations may also re-evaluate funding to the Palestinian Authority, while keeping some money flowing to specific projects such as human rights programs. “What is the logic to continue funding a Palestinian Authority in a situation where two states is no longer the objective or no longer seen as feasible,” said Hugh Lovatt, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

How would the annexation affect Israel’s economy?

Before the pandemic broke out, Israel’s central bank expected 2020 output to expand around 3%, but by April it was predicting a 5.3% contraction. The annexation plan, if carried out, may lead to even further damage, said analysts, if countries opposed to the move flag their objection by reducing trade.

What will the international reaction be?

The U.S. will support it, but the European Union, some Gulf Arab states, and presumptive U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden have already spoken out against it. “Annexation will not pass unnoticed or, if it proceeds, there will be a reaction,” EU foreign-policy spokesman Peter Stano told reporters in Brussels on May 11. Several member states seek the threat of sanctions to deter annexation, including possibly denying Israel membership in trade agreements, special grants or cooperative ventures, Israel’s Haaretz daily reported. But EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell said the EU is “far away” from weighing any sanctions on Israel, while acknowledging the plan is “very divisive” within the bloc.

The United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said such a move would be illegal and undermine opportunities for peace.

“Even if the United States did recognize the annexation, virtually no one else would,” said Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum research center. “Why take this risk? Why take this step and plunge into the unknown?”

What might encourage Netanyahu to go ahead?

A recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that more than half of Jewish Israelis support annexation of parts of the West Bank, versus 28% who oppose it, meaning Netanyahu wouldn’t have to worry about domestic backlash. His legal woes may also be a consideration. The prime minister has been charged in three graft cases, and may choose to play the annexation card to keep the spotlight off himself and burnish his legacy domestically as he heads to trial later this month.

What might deter him?

The risk of renewed Palestinian violence as well as opposition from Europe, Israel’s largest trade partner, and the possibility of undermining warming ties with Gulf Arab states. Netanyahu also has to take into account opposition from Jordan, one of the two Arab states to have made peace with Israel. Gantz may also put the brakes on plans.

What about the timing?

The step threatens to undermine close cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians to keep the coronavirus in check. “The Palestinian Authority is trying to cooperate with Israel on curbing the virus despite the occupier-occupied dynamic, and looming annexation makes it much harder,” said Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group consultancy.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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