Israel’s mythic foreign minister, Abba Eban, once quipped that “history teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.” His insight presumed that even leaders acting foolishly, for political or ideological reasons, eventually adopt rational decisions.
However, the current Israeli government’s stated intention to annex parts of the West Bank illustrates the potential for folly, as historian Barbara Tuchman aptly described in her excellent book The March of Folly. In order to define a decision as unwise, according to Tuchman, it must appear so in real time rather than hindsight. Such is the case of the annexation idea, which not only risks Israel’s interests vis-à-vis the Palestinians, Arab states, the European Union and even the United States, it also risks creating a lamentable and irrevocable situation.
In 1969, shortly after the Six Day War and the PLO’s takeover by the Fatah movement headed by Yasser Arafat, the organization adopted the idea of establishing a democratic, secular state of Muslims, Jews and Christians in Palestine. The Jews perceived the plan, rightly so, as a recipe for Israel’s annihilation, and all the Zionist parties rejected it. Slightly over 50 years later, Israel is moving slowly – and if annexation occurs, swiftly – toward the creation of one state, albeit neither secular nor democratic. In other words, a more radical version of the plan categorically rejected a half century ago is about to be adopted by the government and public without serious discussion. Already in 1986, former Military Intelligence chief and Middle East scholar Yehoshafat Harkabi warned in his book Israel’s Fateful Hour that annexation “would bring about implementation of the PLO’s idea for a democratic Palestinian state.”
SO HOW did we get to this point?
Israel’s political system is based on coalition governments (often with a small majority) that prefer to avoid critical decisions, especially controversial ones, in order to preserve their rule.
Since their capture in 1967, the occupied territories, and especially the West Bank, have been a divisive issue among proponents and opponents of Jewish settlement there. The resulting status quo policy de facto sanctioned the creeping takeover of lands, although no government has ever approved a strategic decision to settle or annex the West Bank. Even the Alon Plan, issued in the days of the Labor Party government, remained unofficial policy. Contrary to prevailing assumptions, there was never a conspiratorial plan to settle the West Bank or annex it. Nonetheless, the absence of a clear governmental policy and the determination of the settlers – encouraged by certain governments or ministers – lulled the international community, as well as most Israeli Jews, who oppose this policy, into complacency.
Division of the Land of Israel (Palestine) has always been the widely accepted solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A series of partition plans has been proposed since 1937, each giving the Palestinians less than the previous one. The 2020 Trump plan goes as far as to deprive the Palestinians of one-third of the land promised to them in the Oslo Accords, which in themselves included less than 22% of the territory of Mandatory Palestine. The Trump plan is largely a mirror image of the 1937 British Peel Commission plan, which provided only 15% of Mandatory Palestine for the establishment of a Jewish state. Both sides, as we know, rejected the plan.
Over 80 years after the partition idea was first broached, Israel is purposely and adamantly working to bury it. Annexation of parts of the West Bank – whether of a few percent of the area (only the settlements), 17% (the Jordan Valley) or the entire 30% allocated under the Trump blueprint – means that Israel is in effect destroying the two-state option.
EVENTUALLY, THE annexation plan may not pan out, for a variety of reasons. First, US insistence on implementation of the Trump plan along with the annexation – i.e., the establishment of a Palestinian state in the remaining parts of the West Bank. Second, the vehement opposition of the EU, including Israel’s friends, and Germany chief among them. During his June 10 visit to Israel, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas expressed his country’s objections and those of other European states. Finally, there is the settlers’ rejection of the price they would have to pay for Israeli sovereignty – i.e., the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Yet Netanyahu, who will not want to violate his annexation pledge, especially as he is immersed in his trial, could push for a mini-annexation, attesting to his determination but also to his responsibility as a leader attentive to criticism. Such a decision could turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory, leaving annexation advocates unsatisfied and opponents viewing it as an aggressive and threatening move, requiring response.
However, even if the Israeli government, as Eban remarked, eventually makes a rational decision and avoids annexation, the conclusion will invariably be that Israel does not want a Palestinian state. Pulling back from annexation would not mean that Israel truly wants to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict with the Palestinians, but that circumstances and pressure forced it to do so. In other words, avoiding a small foolish move (annexation) cannot change the larger folly of continued occupation of the West Bank.
Most Israelis are oblivious to what goes on in the territories. In fact, most do not consider the annexation a key issue. According to a poll commissioned by the Two-State Coalition, only 3.5% of respondents believed annexation should be one of the two main issues on the government’s agenda. However, those who favored annexation said they supported it even at the cost of undermining Israel’s peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt (60%) and escalating terrorist attacks against soldiers and civilians (43.5%). These findings should serve as an alarming warning because annexation is not worth such repercussions.
The only good news to come out of the annexation crisis is the renewed discourse about the future of the occupied territories. From now on, the debate should focus on resolution of the Palestinian problem. Most of the experts dealing with these issues in civil society and academic circles keep insisting on the urgency of dealing with the Palestinian problem, so why is no one listening?