BY JESSE BERNSTEIN AND GABE FRIEDMAN | JTA
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised his supporters during multiple election campaigns last year that he would make areas outside of the country’s borders part of the state. Now, his chance is fast approaching.
The terms of a government coalition deal he struck with political rival Benny Gantz allow Netanyahu to put annexation to a government vote as early as July 1. The pair reportedly differ over details, but the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is trying to broker an agreement.
What happens with annexation has potentially steep stakes for Israel’s relationship with the United States, with its allies in Europe and beyond, and with American Jews.
“What we’re facing now, at large, is really a growing fragmentation in the American Jewish community as it relates to Israel,” said Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and a fellow at the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.
Annexation could be a “breaking point” in the relationship between American Jews and their Israeli counterparts, said Professor Nitzan Lebovic, the Apter Chair of Holocaust Studies and Ethical Values at Lehigh University.
There are factors that complicate the chances of annexation happening on July 1, but the possibility remains on the table. Here’s what you need to know.
What could happen July 1
Netanyahu, who has opposed a Palestinian state during most of his career, sees annexation as a way to safeguard Israel’s control over parts of the West Bank, which much of the Israeli right views as Israel’s historical heartland.
If the prime minister had his way, he would immediately try to annex the land that Israel was allotted under the Trump administration’s Middle East peace proposal in January — approximately 30% of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley. He could put the idea up for a vote either in parliament or his own Cabinet, according to the coalition agreement.
But he may be starting small. According to a Times of Israel report, Netanyahu currently plans to annex just a small portion of West Bank territory on July 1 — namely the land occupied by over 100 Jewish settlements.
The rest could come later, but the limited approach for now reportedly stems from the fact that a U.S.-Israeli team is still determining the exact lines of territory described in the peace deal. (The Palestinians have been unequivocal in their rejection of the plan.)
Who supports annexation
The right wing of Israeli politics is a major backer. That includes even Netanyahu’s other bitter rival, Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party.
So does the Trump administration, which authored the peace plan that essentially gave Netanyahu the green light for annexation. The administration’s supporters, including many evangelical Christians who have a religious interest in the West Bank territory remaining under Israeli control, also support the move.
Many right-wing leaders, politicians and organizations in the U.S. support the move as well.
Who opposes annexation
The speculation about annexation has prompted a wave of critical responses, from liberal Jewish groups whose opposition might be expected to U.S. politicians and world leaders.
In the U.S., the caution around annexation has been bipartisan, with Republicans and Democrats alike warning that such a move would threaten efforts to reach a two-state solution.
Some other pro-Israel groups, such as AIPAC, the largest Israel lobbying group in the U.S., have yet to show their cards.
In a twist, several Israeli settler leaders, mayors and other activists whose homes would become part of Israel under annexation oppose the move. They say annexation would stunt settlement expansion and freeze the currently disparate settlements, which are sprinkled across the West Bank, in an insecure position. They also oppose a Palestinian state of any borders.
“Either the settlements have a future or the Palestinian state does — but not both,” right-wing lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich, who at one point pushed for annexation, told The New York Times recently.
What the consequences could be
If Netanyahu plows ahead with annexation without winning over some of his critics at home and abroad, there could be consequences for Israel.
Much of the international community sees the settlements as part of an illegal Israeli occupation of land that could make up a Palestinian state. Annexation would also be viewed as illegal according to United Nations standards, just as Russia’s annexation of Crimea was in 2014, for example.
The move could trigger a shake-up in international allegiances. While many European and other countries — including the United States under President Obama — have disagreed with Netanyahu over policy, they have held on to hope of a future two-state solution. Annexation would at least alter what the traditional two-state solution looks like.
Though it’s nothing new for liberal American Jews to take issue with Israel’s nationalist policies, Lebovic said annexation could represent a dramatic discontinuity, a sort of last straw.
To the American Jewish right, meanwhile, even using the term “annexation” to describe the potential action is inaccurate.
“This land is not occupied; rather it is actually land that Israel gained fair and square,” Romirowsky said, “and this is an issue of executing sovereignty.”
“There is a loss in translation between the American Jewish community and Israel, and there’s not enough knowledge on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean,” he added.
For the more than 400,000 Israelis who live in the settlements and are full citizens, the specifics of post-annexation governance are still unclear. But it’s undeniable that the move would shape the contours of future peace efforts in the region, as Israel would unequivocally see the West Bank settlements as part of the official state in any negotiations with the Palestinians.
For their part, the Palestinians say that unilateral annexation, which both sides agreed to forgo in the accords, is a deal breaker when it comes to negotiating with Israel on anything moving forward.
“We don’t want things to reach a point of no return,” Hussein al-Sheikh, a close adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, told The New York Times recently. “Annexation means no return in the relationship with Israel.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0740. Gabe Friedman writes for JTA.org.