Shadow Government

Biden Must Speak Out Against Israeli Annexation Plans Before It’s Too Late

With Trump’s blessing, Israel is getting ready to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank as soon as July. Biden shouldn’t go along.

Children welcome a convoy of settlers to the Israeli settlement of Mehola in the Jordan Valley, in the occupied West Bank, on Feb. 3.
Children welcome a convoy of settlers to the Israeli settlement of Mehola in the Jordan Valley, in the occupied West Bank, on Feb. 3. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

The first foreign-policy challenge to a would-be Joe Biden presidency could come well before a single general election vote has been cast. In Israel, the new national unity government formed this week is poised to proceed with the annexation of large parts of the occupied West Bank as soon as July 1, and what the former U.S. vice president says about such a portentous move will matter. He may not be able to prevent the annexation from happening, but what he says could have a major impact on what form it takes and—should Biden win in November—on the future course of Israeli policy and U.S.-Israeli relations.

Israel’s new government was long in coming. It was formed after three inconclusive elections and many weeks of negotiations—and only after challenger Benny Gantz, the head of the centrist Blue and White alliance, dropped his demand for the right to veto Israeli policy in the West Bank and granted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greater ability to pick judicial positions. In exchange, Gantz received the deputy prime ministership, control over key ministries, and a commitment that he will take over as prime minister from Netanyahu in 18 months. A former commander of the Israel Defense Forces, Gantz’s position on annexation had been ambiguous, a new politician’s attempt to please all sidesGantz, a former commander of the Israel Defense Forces, has been ambiguous on annexation, trying to please all sides.: He backed it in principle before suggesting that any such move take place “in coordination with the international community,” which could be read as practical opposition cloaked in theoretical support. But faced with the option of insisting on the veto—which would have forced another election—or caving and joining the government, he chose the latter.

True, Gantz had essentially abandoned his negotiating leverage beforehand. By breaking his campaign vow never to be part of a government coalition headed by someone indicted on corruption charges, as Netanyahu has been, Gantz blew up the Blue and White alliance that had presented the prime minister with his stiffest electoral threat in over a decade. Had a fourth election been called, Gantz would have faced likely defeat. Little surprise, then, that he gave Netanyahu a green light to implement his announced plan to annex as much as 30 percent of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, as soon as experts have drawn up maps, a process that should be concluded by July 1. The coalition agreement says Netanyahu is supposed to take into account “regional stability, protecting existing peace agreements and aspiring for future ones,” but that’s a fig leaf, since the agreement also leaves the final decision in Netanyahu’s hands.

There is little doubt about Netanyahu’s intention to move forward. With U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration having long made clear their support for annexation—most recently with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s April 22 statement that it was “Israel’s decision to make”—Netanyahu and his allies will almost certainly want to seize the window of opportunity to act while they’re still certain to have Washington’s support. Indeed, the more probable a Biden presidency, the more urgent it will become for Israel’s right-wing parties to act, thereby fulfilling a long-standing ideological and political dream. Shortly after Trump unveiled his Middle East peace plan, which foresees annexations as part of a broader agreement, some of his advisors made clear that they didn’t want Israel to rush ahead with actions that would doom their remaining hopes—however unrealistic—that the Palestinians would accept the plan. Now, however, the administration seems virtually certain to support or even encourage unilateral annexation. Some on Trump’s team see supporting annexation as a surefire way to showcase his pro-Israeli credentials ahead of the election; others support it out of ideological conviction, believing that burying the two-state solution and cementing the creation of a greater Israel could be one of the Trump administration’s signature legacies.

That’s where Biden comes in. He won’t be president on July 1, but what he says could have an impact on what Netanyahu does, the position Gantz takes, and the reactions of the Arab states. Biden has already expressed his opposition to annexation, but by spelling out now where he stands and what he would do if he were president, Biden might be uniquely placed to persuade Israel to think twice before moving forward with such a fateful step—or at least limit its scope. At a minimum, Biden could signal what his policies would be if elected.

Biden’s first step should simply be to explain clearly why, as a long-standing friend and supporter of Israel, he strongly opposes annexation: because it would jeopardize Israel’s future as a democratic, Jewish state by making a two-state solution unviable; because it would damage Israel’s relations with Jordan; because it would violate international law; because it ignores the rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people; and because it could be a harbinger of greater regional instability and possibly violence. An Israel that proceeded with annexation would almost certainly deny equal rights to Palestinians while entrenching a system in which they are compelled to live in disadvantaged, isolated areas surrounded by Israel. Such an outcome would fundamentally undermine the values that have bolstered traditionally bipartisan U.S. support for Israel and could lead to growing calls in the United States and elsewhere for Palestinians to be granted equal civil and political rights in a single state—a scenario most Israeli Jews reject.

Going further, Biden should declare that his administration would remain faithful to long-standing U.S. policy to support only negotiated territorial changes and withdraw U.S. recognition of annexation, even if Trump tries to create a fait accompli. Making this stance clear now could influence Netanyahu’s choices in July while removing any ambiguity about where the United States would stand if Biden wins.

Third, Biden should point out that his administration’s willingness and ability to shield Israel from international criticism and action in international institutions—measures that are certain to increase if it takes a step considered unjust and illegal by most of the world—will necessarily decline if Israel carries out annexation. The logic would be straightforward: The United States should not spend valuable political capital to block statements or resolutions when they reflect its own views and policy.

Finally, Biden could explain that the United States should not be asked to subsidize annexation policies inconsistent with its values and interests. Even as the United States continues to support Israel’s security, a President Biden could explore ways of deducting any money spent on the annexed territories from generous U.S. assistance, consistent with the long-standing U.S. policy of deducting spending on Israeli settlements in the West Bank from U.S. loan guarantees. If such a policy were made clear, any decision by Israel’s government to nonetheless go forward with annexation would be a sign that it felt secure enough to forgo a portion of U.S. assistance.

Critics might say that spelling out these positions would only give Netanyahu further incentive to move quickly and Trump to support him. Unfortunately, those two leaders don’t appear to need any further encouragement, and both may think vigorous support for annexation now will help them remain in power. If Biden doesn’t speak up, it may well be too late—even if he is elected in November.

Philip H. Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a former White House coordinator for the Middle East in the Obama administration, and the author of Losing the Long Game: the False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East.

Robert Malley is president and CEO of the International Crisis Group. He served as a special assistant for the Middle East under President Barack Obama.