David Vergara is a first year International Relations student and the MENA regional editor for IR Today.
You have probably read the news headlines in recent days. Those who haven’t, may vaguely remember swiping through Instagram stories of hashtags and maps relating to the conflict. The point is, chances are you have noticed the resurgence of the Israeli-Palestinian issue in the news. The time has come for you to update yourself on the latest developments in this seemingly never-ending conflict.
As a reader of IR Today, I am confident in my assumption that you know more than the average person about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Therefore, I will skip the usual recap of over seven decades of conflict. This article begins with a short summary of the current Israeli political situation and US foreign policy towards Israel under the Trump Administration. Subsequently, the details and timeline of the annexation plan are explained. I conclude with a discussion of the implications this annexation has for international relations.
The Trump presidency shifted US-Israel policy, including US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017, the expulsion of the Palestinian Liberation Organization from Washington in 2018, culminating in the announcement of the Kushner-devised Trump Peace Plan in 2020. In short, Trump’s track record relating to Israel and Palestine is vague at best and anti-two state at worst.
What Exactly is Happening?
Israel’s domestic political turmoil, Likud’s Zionist objectives, and Trump’s Israeli bias is nothing new, so why is annexation happening now? Netanyahu’s annexation plans originate with Kushner’s “Middle East Peace Plan”. Almost 4 years in the making, the Peace Plan was fully unveiled in January of 2020. It is important to distinguish between Kushner’s Peace Plan and Netanyahu’s annexation plan, although the latter is inspired by the former in a bid to secure US support.
Unlike Netanyahu’s scheme, the Peace Plan stipulates a bilateralland swap between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israeli government in the West Bank, allocating around 30 percent of the territory (most of which is already occupied by Jewish settlements) under Israeli sovereignty, and the rest under a US/Israeli-recognized Palestinian State. Netanyahu’s plan, although derived from and almost (territorially) identical to the US plan, is unilateral in nature and has been internationally condemned. Nevertheless, the fact that Netanyahu’s plan was formed in accordance with the Peace Plan seemed enough to retain US support for the 1st of July Timeline.
And Why Now?
Netanyahu’s window of opportunity was always slim, battling internal rivals, US elections, and the international community. All of these factors could have deprived him of the political capital necessary to pull off such a stunt. A fourth national election loomed due to the continued deadlock in the Knesset, threatening the end of his premiership and with it the annexation plan. Furthermore, it was unclear whether Trump’s support of the modified Peace Plan would hold, which had strayed significantly off Kushner’s intended course. Lastly, the faster the plan could be pushed through the Knesset and put into action, the less time the international community and pro-Palestinian activists would have to mount a propaganda campaign to galvanize opposition.
Postponement or Abandonment?
Attentive readers may have noticed that the 1st of July came and went, with no IDF tanks barreling down the Jordan Valley. Why?
What Netanyahu could have never predicted, was the outbreak of the Coronavirus. When Israel declared a state of emergency due to the pandemic in mid-April, it forbade the government to advance any laws that did not pertain to the public health crisis, except if both Netanyahu andGantz both approved of the law.
Unfortunately for Netanyahu, the pandemic hindered preparations and increased his dependency on his rival. Gantz has been skeptical of Netanyahu’s plan, not because he inherently opposes the annexation, but because he fears international condemnation and a political win for his rival. Gantz publicly stated that the plan must have guaranteed US support for him to agree to the plan. Moreover, Gantz has criticized Netanyahu for diverting his attention away from the pandemic and has refused to work on the annexation plan’s implementation during the emergency period.
Another major factor that delayed the annexation was wavering US support. The Trump administration’s support for the annexation dwindled as the deadline came closer. Although the US never formally revoked its support for the plan, analysts believe that Kushner has quietly undermined Netanyahu’s plan due to its diversion from his Peace Plan. The reality is that although the territory and graphics look similar, Kushner seeks peace, whereas Netanyahu seeks annexation. The administration got cold feet, which destroyed any hopes in meeting the 1st of July deadline.
Opposition also arose from a very unexpected group: the West Bank settlers. Unified politically under the Yesha Council, they opposed Netanyahu’s plan for two reasons: because it would lead to recognition of a Palestinian State, and secondly because they believe Netanyahu should secure more than 30% of the West Bank territory. Thus, Netanyahu finds himself in a classic political predicament, doing too much for many, and too little for those (Israelis) directly affected.
The amalgamation of all of these hurdles has forced Netanyahu to abandon his original timeline. However, the annexation process has not been indefinitely halted and is predicted to continue later this month.
Even though annexation was delayed, it remains likely that some form of annexation will occur in July, which would have serious, adverse implications for international relations in the region.
International condemnation of Israel’s actions is a given. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Bachelet blasted Israel, simply stating that “Annexation is illegal. Period” (Foreign Policy). Moreover, the UK, France, Germany, and the Arab League have denounced the unilateral move. Nevertheless, Israel seems indifferent towards international pressure, US support alone would suffice for Netanyahu to press forward.
The annexation also entails severe implications for stability in the Middle East, both externally between Israel and its historically hostile neighbors, as well as internally with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
Annexation would further erode the control of the Palestinian Authority, exacerbate its bureaucratic ineffectiveness, nurturing radicalization. The PA has long been criticized by Hamas and others for its inaction towards Israel’s settlements. Although PA leader Abbas has condemned the annexation plans and decreased security cooperation with Israel, it is clear that the PA would lose credibility and support from Palestinians if it does not resort to more radical means. Similar to the 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza, history would threaten to repeat itself, with Hamas and other radical groups benefiting from PA lethargy. The ramifications of further radicalization in the West Bank must hardly be made explicit, Israel can expect a rampant increase in Hamas recruitment and terrorist activity against its state.
The Annexation plans would also jeopardize the rocky peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Relations with Arab states, especially Egypt and Jordan, as well as the Gulf states, which have recently improved due to common enemies (ISIS, Hezbollah), would further deteriorate. The annexation plan indicates that Israel has given up on normalizing its relations with its neighbors, abandoning a long-held goal since the Oslo Accords.
But the most profound implication is that annexation decisively buries the two-state solution. Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, stated that annexation would “…shatter the paradigm that has governed the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades” (Washington Post). Since 1967 and the infamous UNSC Resolution 242, the two-state solution has been regarded as the only peaceful solution to the conflict. The unilateral nature of Netanyahu’s actions is the most significant shift in Israel’s policy since 1974, perhaps even 1967. The bleak truth is that should unilateral annexation go ahead, it could forever eliminate the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
To conclude, the annexation plan may have been halted due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But make no mistake, Netanyahu will attempt to execute his plan before Trump is up for re-election this fall. Whether annexation goes ahead or not is Trump’s decision, however, it is up to the people to signal whether this improves or endangers his chances of re-election in November. The Middle East is on the brink of another major upheaval, and history will forever hold Trump and Netanyahu, the two men responsible for it, accountable.