Annexation Would Threaten U.S. Military Support for Israel

Netanyahu's planned land grab in the West Bank will undermine bipartisan support for U.S.-Israel defense ties—endangering the special relationship and Israelis’ security.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak (L), and U.S. Defense Secretary (R) Leon Panetta walk to the podium to speak to the media at a joint press conference while they visit the Iron Dome defense system launch site on August 1, 2012 in Ashkelon, Israel.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak (L), and U.S. Defense Secretary (R) Leon Panetta walk to the podium to speak to the media at a joint press conference while they visit the Iron Dome defense system launch site on August 1, 2012 in Ashkelon, Israel. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Israel’s March 2 election will likely leave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm at least for the coming weeks, even if he is simply leading a caretaker government. But although he once again heads Israel’s largest political party, the prime minister, whose corruption trial begins on March 17, is now more exposed than ever before to challenges to his continued tenure.

In the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, released in the final weeks of the most recent Israeli election campaign, this scenario places the future of U.S.-Israel security ties in grave danger. That is because an increasingly desperate Netanyahu will have West Bank annexation firmly in his sights.

The logical conclusion of annexation is a single, nondemocratic state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea—and that eventuality will fundamentally alter the nature of the relationship between Israel and the United States. In the past, Netanyahu might have adopted a more cautious position on annexation out of concern for U.S. opposition. Now, annexation is enshrined as official U.S. policy under the Trump plan.

The administration’s proposal permits Israel to annex 30 percent of the West Bank, and already last week, a joint U.S.-Israeli committee was in the West Bank to begin mapping out territories where Israel could “extend its sovereignty”—the Israeli right’s euphemism for annexation.

Bear in mind that not one member of this committee is drawn from the Israeli military, which would be tasked with defending the new borders it would create, nor is any member a Palestinian. This deficiency mirrors the plan itself: Its architects in the administration did not consult any Palestinians or the Israel Defense Forces, according to recent conversations with senior I.D.F. officials.

What’s more, the plan envisions a Palestinian entity that bears none of the characteristics of a sovereign state. Instead, it would create disconnected Palestinian enclaves with limited autonomy under overall Israeli control. This process will likely result in the Palestinian Authority’s collapse. Its current leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is 84 and has struggled with health problems in recent years, and a new generation of Palestinian leaders may feel compelled to end security cooperation with Israel when prospects of statehood are lost.

Israel could then find itself back in full military and civilian control of the entire West Bank, including major Palestinian cities which the Palestinian Authority currently governs. Most of the world will view such an outcome as a single state (excluding Gaza) in which 3 million Palestinians lack citizenship rights.

The U.S.-Israel partnership would be threatened in various ways if Israel continues its slide toward nondemocracy.

For the United States, there are serious humanitarian interests at stake if Palestinians remain under perpetual Israeli control, but humanitarian concerns will likely take a back seat to a longstanding U.S. interest: maintaining a security partnership with Israel at its current level.

This partnership would be threatened in various ways if Israel continues to slide toward nondemocracy. Israel’s legitimate security concerns, even if Israel looked less and less like a fully democratic state, would of course remain. And the United States would still have an interest in Israel’s self-defense capabilities. But the common values which have always been the foundation of the partnership would evaporate.

The United States’ ability to manage a wide range of threats from the Middle East—terrorist organizations from Hezbollah to the Islamic State, aggressive states such as Iran pursuing weapons of mass destruction, and the instability and civil wars endemic in the Arab world—is complemented by Israel’s ability to defend itself from these same threats. U.S. and Israeli military and intelligence professionals maintain deep, trusting relationships, the kind the United States only enjoys with its democratic allies. Israel’s democratic decline would jeopardize all of this.

Moreover, future U.S. administrations and Congresses, even if they remain deeply committed to Israel’s security, could, at a minimum, feel compelled to restrict the use of U.S. assistance to enforce a nondemocratic system in the West Bank. Indeed, Democratic members of Congress and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders have already raised questions about reducing or conditioning U.S. assistance to Israel, and such questions will only increase if annexation occurs.

Israeli operations against threats in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran would be unaffected. But accounting for such distinctions—where and how dollars are spent, equipment is used, and intelligence is deployed—would be complex and a source of bilateral tension should Israel move further in a nondemocratic direction.

Thus, as U.S. military and intelligence officials designate certain Israeli activities as ineligible for Washington’s support, their relationships with their counterparts in Jerusalem would certainly be strained. What would happen, for example, if the U.S. military tells Israel it cannot use U.S.-supplied helicopters in a particular operation?

When trust is degraded between security professionals, communication in both directions is stifled. This scenario would undermine the U.S.-Israel strategic partnership, which is enormously beneficial to both countries.

Those who imagine that there could be no erosion in U.S.-Israeli security ties should look at Turkey, a NATO ally, but also a democracy under stress. U.S. officials today no longer enjoy anything like the trust with their Turkish counterparts that they once did. In nondemocracies such as Morocco and Jordan, where, unlike Turkey, the strategic alignment with the United States remains solid, the range and uses of U.S. assistance and intelligence are far more circumscribed than with Israel.

While these situations do not match the Israeli case precisely, they suggest that the U.S.-Israeli security partnership, important to the U.S. for moral and strategic reasons, would be severely weakened by aid restrictions and a trust deficit.

The Trump administration’s plan and its greenlighting of an annexation plan that would precipitate a decline in Israel’s democratic character could ultimately threaten broad support for U.S. security assistance to Israel—a rare point of bipartisan domestic consensus.

Today, wide segments of American society and bipartisan majorities in Congress still agree that the U.S.-Israel security partnership is worth investing in, as the administration of former President Barack Obama did when it signed a 10-year, $38 billion security assistance package, which runs through 2028. And Israel receives nearly 50 percent of all U.S. security assistance funds.

However, negotiations for a follow-on security assistance agreement, likely to begin in the next few years, will be more challenging if Israel proceeds with unilateral annexation and moves in a nondemocratic direction. The 2016 agreement, which includes no linkage to Israeli practices in the West Bank, enjoyed bipartisan support. That would be at risk post-annexation.

In a recent study, we examined the likely results of each of the following scenarios: the two-state solution; the status quo; an Israeli-Palestinian confederation, in which Israel and Palestine share government institutions and open borders, similar to the European Union; one democratic or binational state; one nondemocratic Jewish state; a Jordanian option, wherein Jordan is responsible for the Palestinians and may even be transformed into a Palestinian state; and the Trump plan.

The study concluded that the Trump plan propels Israel toward the single nondemocratic state outcome. The threat to U.S.-Israel security ties this scenario poses is the most serious one, but is just one of many detrimental consequences.

Even if Netanyahu is ultimately unsuccessful in retaining the premiership, the Trump administration is now signaling that it intends to try moving ahead with its proposal regardless of who ends up in power in Jerusalem.

In the aftermath of Israel’s most recent election, Netanyahu could seek to leverage the plan and its annexation provisions to catalyze support for a government under his leadership, or at least halt any effort to pass legislation that would prevent him from continuing to serve as prime minister. He may need just a handful of Knesset members to take the bait.

And even if Netanyahu is ultimately unsuccessful in retaining the premiership, the Trump administration is now signaling that it intends to try moving ahead with its proposal regardless of who ends up in power in Jerusalem. If the Palestinians don’t come to the table in a few months, Jared Kushner told a group of U.S. senators this week, annexation will be under way sooner rather than later.

Yet the consequences of such a move will go beyond the Israeli domestic political sphere to the foundation of U.S.-Israel security ties. Supporters of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship should recognize the Trump plan for the serious danger it poses, and the very realistic possibility that it will result in the institutionalization of an undeniably nondemocratic government.

Keeping alive prospects for a two-state solution, which would preserve Israel’s status as Jewish and democratic, is critical for the future U.S.-Israel security ties, but the Trump plan may do them serious harm.

Daniel B. Shapiro was U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017.  Twitter: @DanielBShapiro

Shira Efron is a policy advisor at Israel Policy Forum and visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.  Twitter: @ShiraEfron

Evan Gottesman is the associate director of policy and communications at Israel Policy Forum.

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