Israel and the Palestinians, marching as always to the beat of their own drums, are generating a different set of headlines these days than the rest of the coronavirus-plagued world. Neither population has been immune to the destructive effects of COVID-19 on their lives and livelihoods, but it is the pledge of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to begin implementing President Donald Trump’s peace “vision” as early as July 1, that now dominates much of the regional discourse.
Unveiled at the White House on January 28, Trump’s blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian bargain envisions the extension of Israeli sovereignty to approximately 30 percent of the contested West Bank. Netanyahu, who has called the plan an “historical breakthrough,” had pounced and advertised that he would fast-track its execution, but suddenly shifted the project to the back burner after White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner insisted that no action be taken before Israel’s March 2 election. Signals abound that Netanyahu’s new government is anxious to capitalize on the President’s promise that “the United States will recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territory that my vision provides to be part of the State of Israel.”
Significant obstacles impede Israel’s prospects of emerging from this process unscathed, but advocates of annexation—a description which many Israelis and their fellow travelers reject categorically, owing to the Jewish People’s ancient title to the Land of Israel and to the tranche’s prior designation by the 1920 San Remo Conference as “a national home for the Jewish people”—remain undeterred. Their determination discloses a chronic bias toward wishful thinking, a recurring (if not exclusive) leitmotif in the annals of peacemaking in the Promised Land.
Fanciful hopes of best outcomes are a poor tool for formulating policy, but Israel’s practical preparations for expanding its control in the West Bank have been uninspiring. Into the second week of June, with Netanyahu’s “target date” for applying Israeli law to the Jordan Valley and considerable sections of Judea and Samaria in close striking range, key institutions such as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the Shin Bet, the National Security Council, and the Justice and Foreign Affairs Ministries—arguably, the instruments of power to be charged with the task—remained reportedly in the dark. Living on a prayer is not much of a strategy, even in an area to which biblical prophecy and miracles are indigenous.
Even If You Will It, It May Still Be a Dream
Israel’s obsession with romantic aspirationalism can be traced directly back to, among other sources, Altneuland (The Old New Land), the 1902 German-language novel composed by Theodor Herzl, the progenitor of contemporary political Zionism. “If you will it, it is no dream,” Herzl inscribed on the cover of the volume, which envisaged the Jewish People returning to build a cosmopolitan society in their ancestral homeland. (The quote has been cited widely since then, including by Walter Sobchak, the character played by John Goodman in the Coen Brothers’ cult classic The Big Lebowski.)
Herzl’s sentiment infused the founding ethos of modern Israel. During the late 1930s, the Jewish residents of British-ruled Mandatory Palestine devised the “Tower and Stockade” method of pioneering settlement, putting facts on the ground to both stake their claim over the territory and better defend themselves against Arab nationalists. The system facilitated the construction of dozens of prefab communities whose location was instrumental in delineating the boundaries of the future State of Israel.
That same proclivity for improvisation was summoned by David Ben-Gurion in 1937, when the Palestine Royal Commission floated the idea of dividing Mandatory Palestine into “an Arab State consisting of Trans-Jordan united with that part of Palestine which lies to the east and south of a frontier . . . [and] a Jewish State consisting of that part of Palestine which lies to the north and west of that frontier.” Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first Prime Minister in 1948, embraced the notion of partitioning the Land of Israel—even though it fell short of his territorial ambitions—but for purely tactical reasons. “A partial Jewish state is not the end, but only the beginning,” he wrote in a letter to his son Amos. Ben-Gurion’s improvisational spirit would transform Israel later into the proverbial “Start-Up Nation,” a powerhouse of entrepreneurship on the global economic stage.
The tables of wishful thinking were turned, however, when it came to Israel’s assessment of international peace efforts during the pre-Trump era. In June 2009, Netanyahu, under intense pressure from the Obama Administration to consent to a two-state solution with the Palestinians, offered terms for “a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.” But the Prime Minister’s words were never to be construed as a declaration of faith in the possibility of achieving such an objective. During the final year of Obama’s presidency, Netanyahu was already campaigning under the banner of no Palestinian state ever being created under his watch. Reaching an agreement with the Palestinians was, in the prevalent Israeli view, nothing short of impossible.
Moshe Ya’alon, Netanyahu’s Defense Minister from March 2013 to May 2016, was more candid about the Israeli government’s perception of negotiations with the Palestinians. Rejecting expectations that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would ever recognize the right of the Jewish People to statehood in the Land of Israel, Ya’alon contended that “we heard the same about [Yasir] Arafat; it was wishful thinking then, just as it is now.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was “obsessive and messianic” about Israeli-Palestinian peace, Ya’alon said in 2014, adding his personal wish that Kerry “gets a Nobel Prize and leaves us alone.”
According to this narrative, the Palestinians—who showed their true colors after the breakdown of the Camp David talks in 2000 gave way to a premeditated wave of terrorism against Israelis—have no intention of ever maintaining good, neighborly relations with Israel. The right-wing hawks who control the balance of power in the Knesset are doubtful that any magical solution exists that can bridge the gaps between the minimum Israeli and Palestinian positions. Skepticism about the imprudent intervention of well-meaning mediators has been reinforced further by recent IAEA reports that Iran is continuing to increase its stockpiles of enriched uranium—in violation of the Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu opposed fervently—and by the specter of a dangerous Israeli security predicament that was averted seemingly when a U.S.-brokered withdrawal from the Golan Heights was interrupted before consummation.
As for the Palestinians themselves, the similar penchant of their leaders to resort to wishful thinking—holding out for the elusive better deal that might always be around the corner—has contributed immensely to the intractability of the conflict. After turning down a package from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that was “more generous to the Palestinians than either that of [George W.] Bush or Bill Clinton,” Abbas preferred in 2009 to sit back and “wait for Hamas to accept international commitments [and] . . . for Israel to freeze settlements.” His patience has yet to generate a better alternative for Palestinians.
“Ultimately,” President Obama remarked in the Rose Garden on September 1, 2010, after concluding discussions with Netanyahu, Abbas, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, and King Abdullah II of Jordan, “the United States cannot impose a solution, and we cannot want it more than the parties themselves.” Only two weeks later, in Jerusalem, Netanyahu and Abbas would hold what was their last-ever formal meeting to date. By the end of his eight years in the White House, Obama was intimately acquainted with the limits of wishful thinking.
Who’s Fantasizing Now?
Fast-forward to the Trump Administration: Israel’s government in Jerusalem is angling now to enhance its grip on the West Bank unilaterally. Netanyahu’s political allies are gambling that the United States won’t even object if Israel just cherry-picks the favorable sections of President Trump’s design for selective implementation. “We didn’t announce that we’re adopting the Trump plan,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz revealed, “but rather parts of it, including the part that lets us extend Israeli law to settlements and the Jordan Valley.” It’s unlikely that Trump will let Israel tinker so brazenly with one of his signature initiatives—but that may be the least of Israel’s problems if it proceeds full steam ahead.
Senior figures in Israel’s security establishment have been vocal about their reservations. According to retired IDF General Yaakov Amidror, a former National Security Advisor to Netanyahu, no practical benefit will accrue from changing the status of the territory in question. “It won’t make life easier for the IDF and not for the settlers either, as they’ll become part of the Israeli bureaucracy system, which is worse than the bureaucratic system they have today,” he submitted on June 7.
Other military experts have weighed-in not only on the lack of upsides but also on the considerable downsides of Israeli adventurism. Amos Gilad, a former director of political-military affairs at Israel’s Ministry of Defense, head of the research division of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, and coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, told IDF Radio that “this annexation plan is an example of bad policy management. Even if annexation doesn’t happen in the end, the damage done will be extensive.” If the IDF finds itself busy in the aftermath quelling protests instead of combating the threat from Iran, he added, it will be “a colossal waste of their time and effort.” The IDF Chief-of-Staff, Lt. General Aviv Kochavi, alerted his troops on June 24 that they could find themselves, “in a few weeks in the Judea and Samaria area because of riots and terror,” adding that “upcoming events can develop into fighting in Gaza.”
The potential fallout for Israel could span multiple theaters. Close to home, the Palestinian powder-keg—contained largely in recent years owing to, among other factors, the shared efforts of Israeli and Palestinian Authority (PA) forces—may erupt violently. Already last month, the PA announced that it would be ending security cooperation with Israel. Yoav Mordechai, another retired IDF general and a more recent coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, and Michael Milstein, who heads up the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, warned soon after that “there could emerge an explosive combination of the widespread Palestinian popular frustration with the deterioration of the quality of daily life, and the acute political crisis sparked by the Palestinian leadership in response to the ‘Deal of the Century’ and its annexation concept.” The negative consequences for Israel’s security could be disastrous.
Confirmation of this scenario came in early June. During an interview with the New York Times, Hussein al-Sheikh, who leads the General Authority of Civil Affairs in the Palestinian Authority, forecasted that the PA would be slashing the salaries of tens of thousands on its payroll, as well as the funding for the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip. Israel will be left alone then to try and manage the agitation on its borders that will be generated inevitably by heightened economic distress. Tensions will be aggravated further if the PA decides to follow through on Al-Sheikh’s promise to begin prosecuting Israelis arrested in the West Bank, ending the practice of delivering them to the Israeli authorities. A total collapse of PA infrastructure could ignite hostilities and plant a humanitarian nightmare on Israel’s doorstep, only to be exacerbated if Qatar is serious about freezing currency transfers, which help alleviate poverty in Gaza.
Further afield, Israel’s critical peace treaty with Jordan—which contributes to securing Israel’s eastern flank—could be placed in jeopardy by unilateral moves in the West Bank. Senior Israeli defense commanders were sounding this cautionary alarm already before Trump unfurled his Middle East proposal this past January. Since then, King Abdullah himself has reiterated that, “if Israel really annexes the West Bank in July, it would lead to a massive conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,” which would then be “considering all options,” including suspending peace with Israel. The King won’t take Netanyahu’s calls anymore and is even refusing to receive a more conciliatory Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz in Amman.
The burgeoning relationships between Israel and the Sunni royals of the Persian Gulf would be at risk as well. On May 21, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs affirmed “the Kingdom’s rejection of the Israeli measures and plans to annex Palestinian lands in the West Bank and impose Israeli sovereignty over them.” Less than two weeks later, on June 1, Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, tweeted his disapproval of “continued Israeli talk of annexing Palestinian lands.” Gargash’s words were followed on June 12 by the unprecedented outreach of Yousef Al-Otaiba, the UAE’s Ambassador to the United States and a prominent interlocutor of many Israelis and American Jews, directly to the people of Israel. In a Hebrew-language op-ed sprawled boldly across the front page of Yediot Ahronot, a leading Israeli daily newspaper, Al-Otaiba notified Israelis that “plans for annexation and talk of normalization are a contradiction,” and can be expected to “harden Arab views of Israel just when Emirati initiatives have been opening the space for cultural exchange and broader understanding of Israel and Judaism.”
Developments of the past few years—most particularly, the coalescence of a united front against Iranian belligerence—have instilled confidence in the Israeli government that Jerusalem’s ties with its new Arab friends will endure. For these regimes to sever their links with Israel, it can indeed be argued, would be counter-productive. It might not be wise to tempt fate, though. Israel is not the only country in the world where political dynamics sometimes produce decisions that run against foremost national interests. And the monarchies are making it crystal clear that, from their perspective, an attempt by Israel to extend its jurisdiction in the West Bank will be a bridge too far.
European leaders are also lining up against Netanyahu’s stated aims. France’s President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson both penned letters to Israel’s Prime Minister in May, expressing concern about the deleterious effects to regional stability of annexation. Certain other EU members upon whom Netanyahu has relied—successfully, so far—to block coordinated sanctions against Israel have afforded equivocal support at best: The foreign ministers of Austria and the Czech Republic, two of the nations that Israel has depended upon reportedly to thwart any EU consensus on punitive action, have both offered publicly that “unilateral annexation” would amount to a violation of international law.
Of no less concern for Israel are its extensive relations with Germany, which assumes the presidency of both the European Union and the United Nations Security Council on July 1. Officials at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs are predicting that, “while ties with Israel are important to Germany, the relations between the countries will likely suffer as a consequence of Israel moving forward with annexation.” And indeed, on June 24, Germany banded together with Belgium, Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway, and the UK to reiterate that “annexation would have consequences for our close relationship with Israel and would not be recognized by us.”
Earlier suggestions of possible EU measures included the exclusion of Israel’s eligibility to participate in the Horizon Europe research and innovation framework program, withdrawal from the Open Skies aviation agreement with Israel, and even the suspension of the EU-Israel Association Agreement. Latest indications are that none of these steps will actually come to pass—any single one of the European Union’s 27 member-states can veto EU foreign policy resolutions—and that the European Union may opt instead for rhetorical and symbolic censure. (In fact, the European Parliament ratified the Open Skies arrangement with Israel on June 17.)
Still, Israel realizes anxiously that its tenuous situation with the EU, which is its largest trading partner, could sour badly and rapidly; on June 26, Belgium’s parliament called on Brussels to facilitate the formulation of a “list of efficient counter-measures geared at responding in a proportional manner to any Israeli annexation of occupied Palestinian territory.” One piece of evidence comes from the Ministry of Science and Technology in Jerusalem, where “contingency plans” are being devised for a plausible circumstance in which EU institutions terminate scientific collaboration with Israel. The ministry intends to fall back on cooperative ventures with individual European states in order to fill that vacuum. Any gain could be offset, however, if other EU members choose to sanction Israel independently.
Finally, in the United States, Israel faces no less steep a hill to climb in trying to escape potential repercussions of declaring its sovereignty over portions of the West Bank outside of any negotiated process with the Palestinians. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden informed an internet audience on May 19 that he “do[es] not support annexation” and promised to “reverse Trump’s undercutting of peace.” Israel’s closest Democratic friends on Capitol Hill stridently object as well. For Israel to put its trust in Trump and to antagonize Democrats at exactly the time when Biden is enjoying a commanding lead in the polls could be construed as nothing less than folly. As for those advising that Israel rush now to complete its redeployment precisely because a Biden presidency would proscribe any such maneuver, they will come surely to regret their haste if a resentful Democratic Party captures the Oval Office in November. Former U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy went so far as to suggest on June 23 that Democratic legislators might even “decide to hold hostage our security assistance to Israel as a way of protesting Israel’s policies.”
Even if Trump were to win re-election, Netanyahu cannot be certain of staying in the good graces of the White House. Trump’s tenure has been marked by tortured interactions with erstwhile American allies and numerous senior appointees of his own team, many of whom have become vocal critics of his policies. Moreover, with civil unrest increasing in the United States, it stands to reason that Trump will prioritize domestic concerns and continue the trend of extracting America from foreign involvements. His threshold for engagement with Israel will be challenged severely if the West Bank spirals into chaos. Either way, the unmistakably partisan tone of the debate regarding the implementation of Trump’s blueprint has cemented Israel as a wedge issue between Republicans and Democrats, jeopardizing critical bipartisan sponsorship that has kept Israel in America’s favor over decades and across many different administrations.
Mobilizing to reduce the human and financial toll of what now appears to be a resurgence of the coronavirus, Israel already has its hands full. Netanyahu may have outfoxed the Palestinians, whose patrons are absorbed largely today with their own problems, but that doesn’t translate automatically into annexation being a net gain for Israel. Pursuing a new, geographically clumsy, expensive and controversial policy with respect to the Palestinians—with all its ramifications for Israel’s global standing, including a predictable multi-pronged assault at the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and other venues—is one headache that Israel can live without right now, even if the worst-case scenarios don’t come to pass. Wishful thinking that unilateralism in the West Bank will unfold uneventfully and without penalty could become a costly proposition for Israel, even if only some of these dark prognostications come true.
The estimated size of the Jewish population in the West Bank exceeds 460,000, not counting another 300,000 Jews living within areas of Jerusalem that are already governed by Israeli law. Those who promote exercising Israel’s sovereignty to additional segments of historic Judea and Samaria argue that the move is mandated by fundamental security requirements and by the imperative to restore Jewish rule over the “cradle of Jewish civilization” and its Jewish inhabitants. They also believe that a rare opportunity now exists for them to change the game, once and for all, and to alter the physical and diplomatic landscape of the conflict, with the wind of the White House at their backs. The merits of their arguments aside, reality is not always determined by what people want, deserve or consider to be fair—and the opposition to their wishes is significant.
And yet, after all has been said and done, Netanyahu’s vow to begin implementing Trump’s paradigm on July 1 still faces obstacles that could prove insurmountable. It is not entirely inconceivable that the project stalls or culminates anti-climactically in a more discreet undertaking, such as the incorporation of additional communities adjacent to Jerusalem. Trial balloons previewing such a downgrade are already airborne.
The Prime Minister could very well get cold feet. Already in his 12th consecutive year in office, Netanyahu took up the sovereignty gauntlet only recently, never before showing much enthusiasm for the idea—despite having the power to advance it. In fact, 41.7 percent of Israeli citizens told pollsters at the start of this month that they “oppose annexation of territories;” only 32.2 percent of those surveyed expressed encouragement. A subsequent, June 16 sample found that only 27 percent of Israelis support immediate annexation. Resistance to the scheme reflects a recognition that Israel would be unwise to endanger tangible assets for the sake of abstract ideals.
Complicating matters, Israel’s right-wing constituents—ostensibly, the staunchest advocates of Trump’s plan—are squabbling vociferously over whether or not to champion the White House bid, some of whose terms they consider deal-breakers. David Elhayani, head of the Jewish settlers’ Yesha Council, is leading the assault. Trump and Jared Kushner are “not friends of Israel,” Elhayani told Ha’aretz, accusing them of compromising Israel’s security. “If someone comes to me with a cake while holding a gun to my head,” he asked mockingly, “will I just take some cake and then say goodbye?” Naftali Bennett, chairman of the Yamina Party and Netanyahu’s former Defense Minister, said in May that U.S. provisions for Palestinian statehood were a “point of no return.” Employing a food analogy of his own, Bennett suggested that “one can’t recognize and then un-recognize Palestinian statehood. It’s like un-cooking scrambled eggs.”
Israel’s High Court of Justice threw another spoke in the wheel on June 9, striking down the 2017 Regulation Law—which would have allowed for the expropriation of West Bank land held privately by Palestinians—as unconstitutional. Also on that day, the court announced its intention to weigh in on the constitutionality of inventing the position of Alternate Prime Minister, an outgrowth of the coalition agreements which underpin the current Israeli government. Netanyahu’s Likud Party is threatening that abrogation of the alternate post will trigger new elections, which will likely preempt enacting any changes to the status of the West Bank.
Trump doesn’t seem overly eager to proceed either. Reported infighting between warring factions in the President’s orbit have created confusion about whether Washington wants Israel to tread slowly or rush forward quickly. Immediately after Trump’s vision was released in January, David Friedman, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, broadcasted that “Israel does not have to wait at all,” spelling out that, “if they wish to apply Israeli law to those areas allocated to Israel, we will recognize it.” But just hours before U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a lightning visit to Jerusalem in May, another senior American official made a point of clarifying that July 1 “is not a sacred date“ from the Administration’s standpoint.
With July fast approaching, the United States is still ironing out details. The joint American-Israel committee responsible for mapping the terrain could, it was conveyed in early June, “take long weeks and possibly even several months” to complete its work, something the U.S. side considers “a precondition that must be met before it would give a green light for annexation.” And on June 8, it was reported that the United States would not acquiesce to the move unless Benny Gantz, Israel’s Alternate Prime Minister, approved as well. That consent may not be forthcoming. Ministers from Gantz’s Blue and White Party have broken ranks publicly with Netanyahu over his confrontational, unilateral approach, and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi—second only to Gantz within Blue and White—is even said to be “working behind the scenes to thwart Jerusalem’s plans to annex territories.” On Monday, Gantz himself told a delegation of Trump envoys that tackling the pandemic should take precedence over all other business, which can “wait until the virus is behind us.”
Administration principals convened on June 23 for the purpose of hammering out a verdict on whether the United States will (or will not) endorse Israel’s West Bank strategy, and under what stipulations, but their consultations ended inconclusively. Some Israelis and Americans have rejected portrayals of a “U.S. veto” over this decision of an independent Israeli government, but it’s become fairly obvious that Netanyahu will not proceed without Trump’s blessing. Doing otherwise would leave Israel fully vulnerable to any consequences meted out by the overwhelming majority of nations that oppose Israel’s designs for the territory.
Politics are playing an oversized role in the drama. According to the Jerusalem Post, the White House will back the enlargement of Israel’s authority in the West Bank only if it takes place “this summer”—just before, it so happens, the final run-up to U.S. elections on November 3. Trump’s sponsorship of Israeli expansionism according to this exact timetable would go a long way toward appeasing his Evangelical Christian base, for whom the Israeli settlement enterprise has always been a favorite cause. His lagging numbers among this demographic, some of whom have found fault increasingly with his response to the public demonstrations and to the coronavirus, offer the clearest explanation of his interest in this affair. If, alternatively, Trump is somehow persuaded that Evangelicals are less than excited about annexation in the current climate, he might pivot yet again and pull the plug altogether; the welcome mat that Israel has laid out for Chinese investments, U.S. displeasure notwithstanding, appears already to have cooled Administration feelings toward Israel.
What could happen eventually is a stillborn process which Trump tries to leverage anyhow for political reward. Netanyahu might do a cost-benefit analysis and decide that pushing Israeli sovereignty would be inadvisable at this time, or he might submit to the wishes of the gambit’s Israeli opponents on both the left and the right. In that circumstance, the President would undoubtedly proclaim “Mission Accomplished,” and tell his conservative fans that he had every desire to do right by Israel, but that the Netanyahu government couldn’t get its act together to take advantage of his generosity. For Trump, this could be the best of all worlds.
In the absence of a firm Israeli consensus about the future of the West Bank, of effective staff-work and preparation by relevant Israeli agencies, and of Palestinian and broader international will to accommodate an augmented Israeli presence on the terrain, this could turn out to be the better outcome for Israel as well. “If you grasped many, you did not grasp anything,” the Talmud warns against overreaching, but “if you grasped few, you grasped something.”
Wishful thinking is perilous. In 2020, with a population of almost nine million, a world-class technology-based economy, and a substantial diplomatic footprint, the State of Israel has more to lose today from a misstep than ever before in its history.