Israel has the guns, the power, and the land. It is on the side of the conflict where rethinking is most necessary if there is to be any hope of peace and a resolution.
The new Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will probably formally annex large portions of the occupied West Bank in a matter of months if not weeks. The coalition agreement Netanyahu reached with his rival Benny Gantz explicitly provides for this move. This development is bad news for peace and for anyone who cares about democracy and human rights.
Annexation will be another step in Israel’s formalization of its swallowing of the territory it conquered militarily, following similar moves regarding the Syrian Golan Heights and the expanded boundaries of what Israel defines as Jerusalem. The impending new step in the West Bank is a violation of international law and a unilateral rejection of the whole concept of a negotiated peace. Palestinian aspirations for self-determination will not die and will fuel future violence, with Israel continuing to live by the sword. The move will spell trouble for Arab governments—especially that of Jordan’s King Abdullah—that want to live in peace with Israel.
One might ask what difference annexation will make, given that Israel already has de facto control over all of the West Bank, with the obsolete Palestinian Authority reduced to functioning as a kind of security auxiliary for Israel. That question leads to a much different line of concern about the impending annexation, among those who have no problem with, and indeed applaud, that de facto Israeli control. An example of such concern is a recent New York Times op-ed penned by Daniel Pipes.
Pipes’s depiction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—ignoring the decades-long history of the conflict, the direction of Israeli policy over most of that history, and the highly disproportionate number of Palestinian casualties as compared to Israeli ones—is contained in his assertion that “Palestinians long ago would have enjoyed self-rule had they stopped murdering Israelis.” That’s what Pipes says when he is not dismissing the Palestinians as an “invented people” or wishing even worse things upon them.
Pipes raises some of the same prospective troubles following annexation that other concerned observers would raise, including destabilization of Jordan and the chance of a new Palestinian uprising or intifada. But his basic concern is not that annexation per se would be bad, but rather that it would stoke opposition to the Israeli government’s policies. President Donald Trump wouldn’t like annexation in the absence of negotiations, he says. American Democrats wouldn’t like it. European governments wouldn’t like it. Sunni Arab states that have cooperated with Israel wouldn’t like it. What’s left of the Israeli left wouldn’t like it, leading “probably to a contingent of Israeli Zionists turning anti-Zionist.” In short, Pipes’ only real interest is in the Israeli government not losing the sufferance and support that have enabled it to get what it wants. He says not a word about the issues of injustice, human suffering, and the absence of peace that are intrinsic to the conflict and the occupation.
A Departure in Israeli Policy
Pipes’ posture is basically the same as what has been the core of Israeli government policy for years: to sustain that international sufferance by maintaining the fiction of interest in a negotiated two-state solution, while unilaterally creating facts on the ground that make any such solution ever more difficult to achieve. That Netanyahu’s new government may soon depart from that policy with unilateral annexation of a substantial portion of the West Bank reflects several factors, including the drift of Israeli politics ever farther to the right and the hubris that comes from repeatedly getting away with all sorts of things without having to pay any significant price.
Trump’s policies toward Israel clearly have fed that hubris with a series of gifts including moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, closing the principal U.S. diplomatic channels to the Palestinians, and recognition of the Golan annexation. The “peace plan” that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, produced is another gift, tilting heavily toward Israel on all the major issues in the conflict.
The Kushner plan openly invites the sort of annexation that may be about to take place, even though it ostensibly is conditioned on Israel agreeing to negotiate with the Palestinians—a condition that Netanyahu can ignore while he pockets the parts of the latest gift that he likes. In this respect, the Kushner plan upsets what had heretofore been the Israeli strategy of disguising the reality of annexationist ambitions with the fiction of interest in negotiation. If Trump, as Pipes fears, gets upset about this combination of events, then it will be another example of Trump not having bothered to think through the broader implications of a step he takes to curry immediate favor with his political base (in this case, a base that includes many evangelical Christians).
All this is bad for peace, human rights, and U.S. interests, but in searching for a silver lining to the bad news, there is something to be said for the dropping of pretenses. Annexation will force many who have been part of that international sufferance to move out of the realm of fiction and confront more directly the reality of what Israel has been doing in the occupied territories. The resulting reactions may force some rethinking within Israel. Because Israel is the side of the conflict that has the guns, the power, and the land, it is the side where rethinking is most necessary if there is to be any hope of peace and a resolution of the conflict.
No such stimulus to rethinking will come from the United States as long as Trump is in office. If Joe Biden is president next year, then he can be expected to take a more balanced and peace-oriented approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as a recent statement from former national security officials urges be made part of the Democratic Party platform. This prospect may be one reason why Netanyahu seems determined to hurry up and annex land before next January. But Biden can’t or won’t reverse all the damage the current administration has inflicted on this subject. Considering the size of the larger mess from that administration that he will have to clean up, as a matter of limited political resources and bandwidth he probably will avoid steps that would lead the Israel lobby to go into full attack mode.
Given the magnitude, however, of the continued U.S. gift-giving to Israel—$3.8 billion annually from U.S. taxpayers with no strings attached—there is latitude for some progress without taking any steps that would make such an attack credible. Attaching some strings regarding Israeli conduct in the occupied territories would be only an adjustment to a policy that still revolves around enormous U.S. support to Israel and Israeli security.
Any chance of moving toward the sort of sanctions that Israeli conduct in the occupied territories warrants probably rests with the Europeans. In this regard, the annexation of a chunk of the West Bank may cross some unstated redlines in European chancelleries. European governments could use as a model the sanctions that were effectively applied against the South African version of apartheid. If this were to happen and does bring about needed rethinking in Israel, then it would mean some good might come out of even the brazen step that Netanyahu’s government is about to take.
Paul Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. Professor Pillar also served in the National Intelligence Council as one of the original members of its Analytic Group. He is also a Contributing Editor for this publication.