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Court opens door to annexing the West Bank — and the consequences could be disastrous

In a decision that could have momentous implications for the Middle East, the Israeli Supreme Court has rejected petitions from several Israeli advocacy groups that challenged the legality of the agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival, former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, to form a National Unity government. 

Gen. Gantz, who in three consecutive elections led his Blue and White Party in opposition to Netanyahu’s Likud, campaigned primarily on a platform that offered little more than rejection of his electoral rival. Having come within a whisker of forming his own government, Gantz shocked many of his supporters by agreeing to rotate the premiership with Netanyahu. Gantz explained that he came to terms with Netanyahu in order to form a “national unity government” to fight the coronavirus. Ironically, the epidemic appears to have receded in Israel; the government has begun to lift some of the restrictions it imposed when the force of the virus was at its height. Meanwhile, the new Israeli administration has yet to take office.

The terms of the agreement between the two party leaders enables Netanyahu to retain his prime ministership for 18 months before turning it over to Gantz. Many observers believe that will never happen; somehow, they fear, the wily prime minister will find a way to remain in office, just as he successfully persuaded the Supreme Court to rule that he could remain in office despite being under indictment.

Although the Netanyahu-Gantz agreement prioritized the fight against the coronavirus, it did not restrict Netanyahu from moving forward with his plan to annex portions of the West Bank. Although for decades Israel avoided any step toward annexing the disputed territory, the Trump administration’s January 2020 Middle East plan opened the door for Netanyahu to do so. The roster of those who previously tried to bring about Middle East peace is quite impressive; it includes Donald Rumsfeld, George Mitchell (who successfully negotiated the Belfast Good Friday Agreement), Robert Strauss and Dennis Ross. Jared Kushner, who led the White House effort to fashion the peace plan, promised to accomplish what all these men could not.

Not surprisingly, when the White House announced its plan, the Palestinians — who had never been consulted during its formulation — rejected it out of hand. So, too, in much milder terms, did most Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, led on a day-to-day basis by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, with whom Kushner has an especially close relationship.

Immediately upon the Trump administration’s unveiling of the plan, Netanyahu seized upon its provision for Israel to retain all its West Bank settlements. Indeed, Netanyahu was ready to proceed with annexation of the Jordan Valley immediately upon the plan’s public release, but the administration refused to go along at that time. Instead, it called for a pause until the new Israeli government is settled in place. 

Now that Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Netanyahu, it is expected that he will proceed with annexation as quickly as he can. David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, has especially close ties with the city of Beit-El, a settler hotbed on the West Bank; he already has signaled his support for annexation, and the White House will surely do so as well. 

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that any other state will follow Washington’s lead, especially at a time when the Trump administration has turned its back on America’s allies and partners worldwide as it flails away at the devastation that the coronavirus has caused. On the contrary, most states — and particularly the European Union — can be expected to ignore Washington’s preferences and, instead, punish Israel economically, at a time when it will have barely emerged from the worst impact of the coronavirus. 

In particular, annexation is certain to provide an immense fillip to the movement to boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) investments and imports from the West Bank and possibly from all areas of the Jewish State; BDS may well be the vehicle that the EU and others employ as their retaliatory tactic. Moreover, annexation will place tremendous pressure on Israel’s Arab Gulf partners to loosen if not rupture the ties they have created over the past decade in the face of Iran’s threat to them both.

Israel was remarkably fortunate that the Trump administration’s recognition initially of its annexation of the Golan Heights, and then of Jerusalem as the state’s capital, prompted neither another Palestinian intifada nor harsh responses from Arab governments or European sanctions. Should Israel proceed to annex parts of the West Bank, it is unlikely to be as fortunate this time around.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags annexation Benjamin Netanyahu Benny Gantz Dennis Ross Jared Kushner Politics of Israel West Bank

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