Under cover of COVID-19 and the U.S. convulsion over racism, the White House is promoting a policy that spells disaster for Israel. Too few are paying attention.
As part of President Donald Trump’s so-called “peace plan” for the Palestinians and Israel, the Israeli prime minister is free to annex around 30% of the occupied West Bank as of July 1.
This is a move that will end any pretense of peace negotiations, endanger Israel’s peace with Jordan and undercut promising advances in normalization with the Persian Gulf states.
So why on Earth is U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman working tirelessly to promote unilateral annexation? And why did first son-in-law Jared Kushner greenlight annexation in the first place?
The answer is domestic politics in the White House, which ignores the likely consequences to Israel in order to please Trump’s evangelical base. Inside Israel, too, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation urge is focused on securing support from right-wing settlers rather than the security of the Jewish state.
“This move is a real strategic danger to Israel,” says Americans for Peace Now’s Ori Nir, a former West Bank correspondent for Haaretz. “The only gains I can see are domestic political gains for Netanyahu. The whole agenda is to create an irreversible situation under Trump.”
All previous U.S. presidents supported a two-state solution based on 1967 lines, adjusted with land swaps but including the removal of most of the 132-plus Jewish settlements. True, the peace process was moribund. But rather than wait for more promising times, the Kushner plan endorsed Netanyahu’s demand for an ersatz “state-minus-minus” that would consist of disconnected cantons of land with most functions still controlled by Israel. Not surprisingly, the Palestinians rejected this plan.
Many Israeli security experts fear that if Netanyahu moves ahead – as Friedman is urging him and his coalition partners to do – Israel will pay dearly at multiple levels: on the West Bank and Gaza, with its Arab neighbors and with the rest of the world. Without any security gains.
“When Israel will annex unilaterally, we shall see (renewed) Palestinian violence start in the West Bank,” says retired admiral Ami Ayalon, former head of Israel’s internal Shin Bet security service. His biggest fear, he said on an Israel Policy Forum call, is that the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, which now provide critical assistance to Israel, will stop cooperating and “do nothing to stop the violence.” Hamas, which now controls Gaza, would feel compelled to compete, and the violence would ultimately “penetrate into our cities.”
Ayalon, like many current and former Israeli security officials, fears annexation would lead to the collapse of the weak Palestinian Authority, forcing Israel to reoccupy the entire West Bank.
“Since (Israelis and Palestinians) aren’t going to live peacefully together (or Israel grant equal voting rights to Palestinians), we are talking about perpetual civil war,” added Nimrod Novik, an executive board member of Commanders for Israel’s Security.
Already, many have compared the Kushner peace plan – which calls for permanent overall Israeli control over disenfranchised Palestinians in disconnected cantons – to a version of South African apartheid. This is a term already used by two former Israeli prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. And annexation – let alone full reoccupation – risks convincing many countries, including European trading partners, to view Israel as they did South Africa.
Even more daunting is the risk annexation holds for Israel’s relation with key Arab states.
Retired major general Gadi Shamni, a former commander of the Israel Defense Forces Central Command, fears the impact on the peace treaty with Jordan, a key neighbor whose armed forces and intelligence services buffer Israel from a chaotic Syria – and an aggressive Iran.
“This (annexation) is an irresponsible step for whoever cares about the state of Israel,” Shamni says. Annexation of the West Bank’s Jordan Valley, he argues, would vanquish any hope of a Palestinian state, creating unrest inside the Jordanian kingdom, where more than half the population is Palestinian. In the worst-case scenario, this might lead to the collapse of the Hashemite regime, whose stability is essential to Israel.
Israeli hawks, including Netanyahu, tend to brush off the risks to Jordan (or foolishly claim Jordan should become the Palestinian state).
They also imagine that sharply improved relations with Arab Gulf states will be unaffected by annexation. That dream was put to rest by the first op-ed for an Israeli newspaper by a key Gulf diplomat, Yousef al-Otaiba, who is the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the United States and reportedly a friend of Kushner.
“It’s Either Annexation or Normalization,” the headline of his op-ed – published in Hebrew – read in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. “Annexation will definitely, and immediately, reverse all of the Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world, and the United Arab Emirates.”
In other words, the annexation ploy not only threatens Israel’s security but also its future acceptance by the Arab world. And all to please Trump’s and Netanyahu’s hardest-right voters.
Can’t get more cynical than that.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Write to her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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