On July 1, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to move forward with a plan to annex parts of the West Bank. He calls this move “a historical opportunity to change a historical trend.” Since the 1967 war, when Israel captured the territory from Jordan, Israel was expected to concede the territory in exchange for peace.
I used to be against annexation. Now I’m not. Here’s why.
The West Bank is the focal point of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, who claim this territory as their own. (Jordan no longer wants it.) The Palestinians’ ostensible goal is to establish a state there. But multiple attempts to reach an agreement and many rounds of violence have not led to this happening. Over the past 53 years, the territory changed: Palestinians multiplied and Israel built settlements in various locations.
The United States acknowledged these changes a decade and a half ago. In a letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President George W. Bush mentioned “new realities on the ground” and negated the option of “full and complete” withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank. In January, President Donald Trump’s administration went further when it introduced its peace plan, which allows Israel to annex all the area that is settled by Israelis, and the Jordan Valley, which some experts argue is critical to Israel’s security.
There’s still strong opposition to annexation but that’s because when realities change, opinions often lag behind. For non-Israelis, the case regularly involves legal arguments, like the “inadmissibility of acquisition of territory by war” (United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, 1967). But for each of these arguments, Israel has a legitimate counterargument, and Israelis correctly believe that it would be more honest and more useful to admit that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a political not a legal dispute.
For Israelis, the case against annexation — a case that a little less than half of Israeli Jews still make — rests on two pragmatic arguments. First, that other countries oppose it and so there could be retribution in the form of Palestinian violence or diplomatic blowback. Critics also fear that when Israel takes over the area, it will face a growing demand by the Palestinians and their allies to forgo the prospect of a two-state solution and give citizenship to Palestinians in the West Bank, thereby making the Jewish state a binational state.
The Israeli government argues that there is now an opportunity that should not be missed.
Nonetheless, a small majority of Israelis — myself included — support annexation. The reasons are many but laying them out begins with the fact that for more than 50 years, Israel has never declared what would be the final borders in a two-state solution, or in any other arrangement for that matter. Annexing portions of the disputed area, on which hundreds of thousands of Israelis — and 2 to 3 million Palestinians — live, will begin a long and necessary process of clarifying what Israel intends to keep under its jurisdiction.
Arguments in favor of annexation also include: This territory is an important part of the historic Jewish homeland; there is a sharp decline in the belief that a viable two-state solution is feasible in the near future; global interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is diminishing; a chaotic Middle East moves Israel toward a position suspicious of any idea that involves the evacuation of territory.
When I wrote a story against annexation in 2014, I knew that it was a close call. It is still a close call. So, what has changed my mind? First, former President Barack Obama’s administration’s failure to advance the peace process made it clear that traditional ideas on how to make peace are outdated. Second, the Middle East shows no sign of moving toward stabilization, thereby making it essential for Israel to keep its guard up and territorial interests intact. Third, the Trump administration’s peace plan indicates that, with time and persistence, Israel might be able to overcome international objection to annexation.
Having been convinced of the feasibility and desirability of annexation, two questions remain: Where and when? Let’s begin with geography. Israel can annex just a small area of the West Bank or a large one; it can annex near the Jordanian border or far from it; it can annex all settlements or just the largest. Restraint is key to ensure annexation does not risk the character of the Jewish state. Israel must not annex the areas where millions of Palestinians live.
Timing is also important. The Israeli government argues that there is now an opportunity that should not be missed. The Trump administration is the first to accept the idea of immediate, unilateral annexation, but this administration could be gone in just a few months. So — the government’s argument goes — Israel has to seize the moment. But I see no need for such haste. The West Bank is not going away and neither is Israel or its control of the territory. The settlements keep growing. Israel can annex territory now, or in six months, or in five years, or in three decades.
It should wait, at a minimum, until November. Annexation is a highly controversial move. Israel would be better off if it had the backing of a supportive administration for more than just a few months, if it wants to avoid international retribution. That means if Joe Biden, who opposes annexation, wins the presidential election, Israel will probably have to wait a little longer.
The Trump administration liberated Israel by crushing some of the outdated orthodoxies of the Middle East peace process, including the “land for peace” formula, and by accepting the possibility of annexation as legitimate. It could now help Israel further by proposing to delay annexation plans until after the U.S. presidential election, and also by ensuring that Israel does not bite off more than it can chew.
In the meantime, stating clearly that annexation is the goal is a move forward. It is less than real annexation, and more than procrastination. I used to be against annexation. Now I’m not. But I’d appreciate a pause for more deliberation before the real action begins.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor.