On 29 April, Israelis celebrated the 72nd anniversary of the foundation of their state, while at the same time, on ‘Land Day,’ Palestinians mourned the Nakbah (catastrophe), which remembers the ethnic cleansing of some 700,000 people from their land in the 1948 war.
While in previous years these events have been focal points for high levels of tension, this year, perhaps as a result of the Coronavirus, there was no outright violence.
This year is, however, haunted by the spectre of annexation, namely the incorporation of large parts of the West Bank (one of the two enclaves that form the remnants of the internationally recognized Palestinian territory) into the Israeli state.
Although the idea has been around for some time, annexation resurfaced as a product of the Trump administration’s so-called ‘Deal of the Century’ announced last year. While ostensibly this ‘deal’ represents the latest US effort to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, its timeline and one-sidedness indicate that its real purpose is to shore up the embattled premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu – a personal friend of the President and his influential son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Of course, it should be evident that unilateral annexation of someone else’s lands is neither reasonable nor can it be understood to be in the interests of peace. However, in recent years, with Trump’s support, annexation has become established practice.
Indeed, one of Trump’s proudest achievements so far was to moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby bolstering Israeli claims to unilateral control over all of – what is, in fact – a legally divided city. Further, the US government formally recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights – an area of territory seized from Syria during the 1967 war – also contrary to international law.
Following Israel’s third inconclusive election in a row on 2 March 2020, the leaders of both main rival factions – Netanyahu and Benny Gantz – agreed to form a coalition government. As a result, Netanyahu will remain as prime minister for 18 months, despite being indicted for corruption, with Gantz – who explicitly promised that he would replace his rival, not support him – serving as his deputy and ultimately taking over. The remainder of the coalition agreement sets out where the government may seek to legislate to enable annexation from the start of June.
One potential stumbling block is the uncertainty over whether Washington would give its approval to annexation, especially as there may be resistance from Trump and Kushner’s other close ally, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Based on the recent history of the Saudi regime’s behaviour, it is evident that it no longer opposes Israel’s dominance over Palestine. However, it is conceivable that Riyadh might object out of fear of inciting domestic discontent.
But it is likely that Trump – who will need to curry favour with his hardline religious support base given his plummeting approval ratings – could become annexation’s most vigorous proponent. One can certainly imagine the value – to both Trump’s ego and his faltering re-election campaign – of a presidential trip to a newly annexed Israel settlement block in the occupied West Bank.
So if annexation does happen, what will it mean? In all likelihood, it would start by merely re-enforcing an assertion that the Israeli state has been making for decades: that its colonies in the West Bank are sovereign Israeli territory and that Palestinians, despite being the indigenous population, have no legitimate claim to that land or its resources. This is already de facto accepted by the Trump Administration, but is resisted by most other states and multilateral institutions, including the EU and UN. It is unlikely that any of those positions would change.
The bigger prize would be jurisdiction over the Jordan Valley – a large area of fertile land between most of the population centres and the Jordan river, the international border. This area is already home to more than 8,000 Israeli colonists and nearly 53,000 Palestinians (though most Palestinians live in Jericho, which is not a direct target for annexation, for now).
For the Israelis who support annexation of the Jordan Valley, the goal is often couched in the language of security; to create strategic depth between Israel’s main population centres and any land invasion.
However, this argument is undermined by decades of Israeli policy. Indeed, since seizing the West Bank in 1967, Israeli governments, led by a variety of political parties, have promoted the occupied Territory’s colonization, thereby moving more than half a million civilians closer to the border area.
Moreover, in the numerous versions of a Two-State solution to the conflict that have circulated over the years, the Palestinian leadership has demonstrated remarkable deference to Israel’s security demands. Thus, a deal clearly could have been worked out, enabling a permanent Israeli early warning system, or even military base, to remain near the Jordanian border without the need to formally annex any land. After all, similar deals are built into Israel’s treaty with Egypt and could be guaranteed by Israel’s overwhelming military superiority.
Talk of annexation must therefore be motivated by something other than security, perhaps religious conviction, economic greed or merely the belief that Israelis have a more profound national or ethnic claim to the land, none of which make annexation any more legitimate.
Instead, if annexation does take place, then the most likely potential outcome will be another nail in the coffin of the already zombie-like ‘two-state solution.’ Either way, it will be the occupant of Beit Aghion (the Israeli prime minister’s official residence), be it Netanyahu or Gantz, and the White House that will ultimately decide while Palestinians will be once again denied agency over their own destiny.
In other words, 72 years after the Nakbah and the foundation of the modern state of Israel, the prospect of the conflict coming to its end through the establishment of ‘Palestinian state’ on the remaining land will die its final death.