Annexation Now Will Squander A Real (if Long-Shot) Chance for Peace

This polarized moment should be turned into a bipartisan cooperation opportunity.
June 28, 2020
A view over houses in the Jewish settlement of Har Hemed near Nablus on June 26, 2020 in Har Hemed, West Bank. While Prime Minister Netanyahu favors a more aggressive plan for unilateral annexation, his coalition partner Benny Gantz, and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, have struck a more reticent note. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

The overreach in pushing for annexation now already has multiplied the possible costs to Israel. The risks make this a reckless step, even if the worst does not happen, including collapsing the Palestinian Authority. Also at risk is damage to the peace treaty with Jordan and possibly destabilizing that kingdom; alienating the Democratic Party and most American Jews; and setting back the growing alliance with Sunni Arab states. Other than shoring up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc and/or distracting from his trial, there is little profit in this step for Israel.

Annexation is being pushed for all the wrong reasons. The insistence on immediate action is predicated on the belief that only President Donald Trump will support boundary changes between Israel and the Palestinians. Since he may not be reelected, the proponents of the move seek to seize the moment. Many supporters of annexation want to foreclose a Palestinian state forever. Some of them want to bring the Palestinians totally inside Israel based on the grounds that they are less dangerous as a suppressed minority than as citizens of an unstable state that could be taken over by jihadists and make life unlivable in Israel.

Nevertheless, the majority of Israelis still believe that Israel’s Jewish character is best protected by not bringing in the Palestinian population. They believe that Israel’s Jewish character would be undermined if it absorbs millions of Palestinians and that its democratic character could be undermined if it has to keep down an unreconciled large fraction of the population by force and coercion.

The majority of Israelis still believe that Israel’s Jewish character is best protected by not bringing in the Palestinian population.

The Trump/Jared Kushner plan was correctly based on the recognition that in the three decades since Oslo, the Palestinians have convinced Israel’s majority that they do not intend to accept Israel’s legitimacy or live in peace with it. Only significant deeds — not words — can persuade Israelis to risk the creation of a Palestinian state. The actions prescribed by the plan would signal that the Palestinians have shifted their national effort away from the present destructive course of delegitimizing Israel in order to gain their self-determination.

KEDUMIM, ISRAEL – JUNE 26: An Israeli Jewish woman hangs laundry near her house in the Jewish settlement of Kedumim near Nablus on June 26, 2020 in Kedumim, West Bank. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

The Palestinians are asked to accept demilitarization of their state. This will assure that it can never threaten Israel’s existence. They are asked to shift their government to a democracy. If the Palestinian Authority (PA) stays a dictatorship, its leadership will, sooner or later, have to resort to diverting popular resentment to an external enemy. Needless to say, that inevitable scapegoat would be Israel — especially since the PA leadership has wasted the unparalleled level of international aid by corruption and incompetence. The reward for making the shift would be an unprecedented level of international aid and a better life — politically and economically — for the Palestinians.

Finally, the plan has a deadline of four years, presumably to prevent the Palestinians from stalling forever. Whatever the final agreement (or not), the United States would back Israel in absorbing up to 30% of the West Bank. This clause removes the two most disturbing obstacles to Israel compromising with the Palestinians. There would be no evacuation of settlements. Past evacuation of settlements almost tore Israel apart. Allowing the settlements to stand — and stay Israeli inside the Palestinian state — would also be the single most powerful statement possible of commitment on the part of the Palestinians to live in peace with Israel. This would signal the PA’s determination to end demonization of Jews as well as of its desire to create a ‘Judenrein’ Palestinian state. The second major upgrade for Israel is that it can permanently control the Jordan Valley corridor, which is an essential defense line against infiltration from the East. Permanent control of the security corridor is the strongest assurance of Israeli security, no matter what course the second state (Palestine) takes.

The plan tells the Palestinians that if they simply refuse to negotiate, they cannot stop the defining of new borders for Israel and Palestine. Moreover, in breaking with the model of a Palestinian state on the lines of the post-1967 borders, the plan incentivizes the Palestinians to seriously negotiate for peace now. In the last two decades, Palestinian hostility, terrorism and refusal to negotiate a final settlement was rewarded with more and more generous land offers (under Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert.) This plan says the Palestinians will get their best deal now. The longer they delay — and continue to delegitimate Israel — the less they will get in the future. At the same time, it incentivizes Israel to enable a two-state solution because the security risks and the continuing hostile incitement would be removed.

The effectiveness of the plan would be greatly enhanced if any takeover of land only is done after serious negotiations and only if the Palestinians refuse to make a final settlement. Israel would be encouraged to accept the two-state solution, but would be assured of having a peaceful, democratic neighbor. In turn, the Palestinians are assured that if they negotiate, they can get the best deal possible and that Israel is ready to accept a genuine peace with Palestine. Palestinian self-determination would be separated, finally, from victimhood, revenge seeking or undermining Israel.

The effectiveness of the plan would be greatly enhanced if any takeover of land only is done after serious negotiations and only if the Palestinians refuse to make a final settlement.

Insisting on annexing now — and without exploring a Palestinian state — turns the U.S. plan into a one-sided political goodie bag for Netanyahu and the annexationist right. This tactic energizes and validates all the opponents of annexation. Taking this step now will condemn any land transfer to permanent de-legitimation by the Palestinians, by the Sunni states that have been coming close to Israel, and by the Democratic Party and American left. With serious negotiations, the Palestinians might come to accept a land exchange in return for sovereignty. Acceptance of the boundary shift by the international community would follow.

The plan erred in allowing for annexation upfront. Maybe this loophole reflected divided counsels in the White House and the desire of some to simply grant Israel all its requests and penalize the Palestinians for past bad behaviors and refusal to negotiate. But if taken, this step will remove a lot of the incentive to the Palestinians to change course and start negotiating. Also, by validating the belief that this approach undercuts the two-state solution, it removes any pressure on the PA to go back to the negotiating table.

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL – JUNE 23: Demonstrators wear masks of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz as they protest against the Israeli goverment’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank on June 23, 2020 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who formed a coalition government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to break an electoral stalemate, has signaled he will not oppose the prime minister’s unilateral move. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

I firmly believe that annexation now will squander a real (if long-shot) chance for peace. However, if the Trump Administration accepts Netanyahu’s plea that he has gone too far out on a limb and cannot back down completely without suffering domestic political damage, it should green-light him to annex only Gush Etzion and Maaleh Adumim and expanded Jerusalem neighborhoods. These are settlement blocs that in past negotiations, Palestinians informally indicated they know would stay with Israel. The George W. Bush Administration also confirmed its backing of this retention in an exchange of letters with then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004, before the Gush Katif evacuation. This would reduce the damage somewhat.

Still, a clean shift from annexation to negotiation would be best because it would make clear that the Trump/Kushner plan is being opposed for all the wrong reasons. Far from undercutting a two-state solution, if the plan is applied correctly, this could be the moment when a Palestinian state begins to emerge. A Palestinian change of course and entering negotiations might enable realization of the original and most benign vision of the United Nations in 194: a Palestinian self-determination and dignity that would be safe for Israel and its security.

This polarized moment should be turned into a bipartisan cooperation opportunity. There could be a breakthrough for peace if all the players shift their pressure activity from the side they oppose to their own allies. It is time for the Republicans and the right to push Netanyahu to go for genuine negotiations instead of annexation. For their part, the European Union, the left, the Democratic Party and the Sunni states should press the Palestinians to enter the negotiations in good faith. If both sides pivot to push their allies to do the right thing, the ‘deal of the century’ could turn into a two-state solution with genuine peace at the end.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg is president of the J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life, which soon will become a division of the Hadar Institute.

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