Argument

Netanyahu’s Annexation Plan Is a Threat to Israel’s National Security

Annexing the West Bank would threaten Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, anger allies in the Gulf, undermine the Palestinian Authority, and endanger Israel as a Jewish democracy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points at a map of the Jordan Valley.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points at a map of the Jordan Valley as he gives a statement in Ramat Gan on Sept. 10, 2019. Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Four days after the White House reiterated its resolve to pursue U.S. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century,” Israel’s ongoing political turmoil ended on Monday with a coalition agreement that may doom prospects of Israelis and Palestinians ever returning to the negotiating table.

The agreement between Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White bloc sets July 1 as the date when unilateral Israeli annexation of large chunks of West Bank territory, a significant element of the Trump plan, kicks in. If their joint government acts accordingly, the plan’s other features will be rendered irrelevant.

This is happening despite 220 retired Israeli generals, admirals, and leaders from the Mossad, Shin Bet, and the police—members of Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS)—signing a full-page ad in Israeli newspapers on April 3 urging their erstwhile colleagues in government—namely Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, both of whom are former chiefs of staff of the Israel Defense Forces—to insist on blocking unilateral annexation of West Bank territory. A few days later, 149 prominent American Jewish leaders joined the Israel Policy Forum in a similar call, and soon thereafter, 11 members of the U.S. Congress issued another warning about the negative consequences of such a move.

Regardless of their—and our—serious reservations about elements of the Trump plan, all three groups agreed on the adverse effects of annexation on prospects for an eventual Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution and the risk of undermining another major pillar of U.S. regional strategy: Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.

Annexation could undermine a major pillar of U.S. regional strategy: Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.

Egypt is a major regional player and acts as the primary intermediary between Israel and Hamas in preventing rounds of violence or ending them once they erupt. Cairo is also an important partner for Israel in fighting the Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates and other terrorists operating in and from the Sinai Peninsula; annexation of the West Bank may trigger a popular reaction in Egypt that could force the administration of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to reconsider these relations.

The situation is even more precarious in Jordan. The kingdom is located just across the Jordan River from the West Bank and has a substantial Palestinian population. It has therefore always been more sensitive to adverse developments in the West Bank. Israel’s border with Jordan has been more secure than other frontiers for decades. Moreover, the kingdom’s vast territory has provided Israel with irreplaceable strategic depth allowing for the deterrence, detection, and interception—on the ground and in the air—of hostile forces, primarily from Iran.

Another objective of the Trump plan may also fall victim to unilateral annexation: the hope of solidifying the administration’s early achievements in encouraging greater cooperation between Israel and U.S. regional partners in the Gulf and elsewhere. Just as the coronavirus pandemic and collapsing oil prices have contributed to concerns about internal stability in the Gulf monarchies, these regimes will also be forced to preempt public anger by reacting publicly to Israeli annexation lest their adversaries—primarily Iran and Turkey—use their inaction to undermine those regimes’ popular legitimacy.

Risking all that for the annexation of territory over which Israel already has full security control makes no sense. Both Israel and the United States need to reconsider before the damage is done.

This reckless move won’t just have adverse consequences for Israel’s security; it also has implications for Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy. The U.S. Jewish leaders and the members of Congress emphasized the danger to the bipartisan U.S. support it has long enjoyed—another important pillar in Israel’s national security equation.

Like most Israelis, many U.S. policymakers and opinion shapers were unaware, as we learned from discussions with them, of the swift progression of unilateral annexation from the whims of a negligible messianic right-wing minority to a high-priority action item on Netanyahu’s agenda for the coalition government he has just managed to form. Now all doubt is erased.

The dramatic public appeal by the 220 retired senior Israeli security officials was designed to stiffen the resistance to annexation by Netanyahu’s would-be coalition partners, led by Gantz, at the very moment when Netanyahu was being subjected to (or orchestrating) pressure from hardcore annexationists to not yield on the issue.

Anticipating such pressure, for well over two years CIS has been sharing its findings concerning the full ramifications of unilateral annexation with members of Israel’s Knesset and cabinet as well as with the Israeli public. It has also been frequently invited to brief White House officials, members of Congress, U.S. diplomats, and U.S. Jewish leaders.

This irreversible step, once taken, is likely to trigger a chain reaction beyond Israel’s control.

In brief, this irreversible step, once taken, is likely to trigger a chain reaction beyond Israel’s control. The tipping point might well be the termination of Palestinian security coordination with Israel. Once hailed as a symbol of aspirations for statehood, the Palestinian security agencies lost public support as statehood appeared less and less likely. Worse yet, both junior and senior officers report encountering accusations of treason and charges that they no longer serve Palestinian national aspirations—only the Israeli occupation.

During tense moments, with popular pressure more pronounced, absenteeism from duty among the agencies approached 30 percent. It is our view (as well as the view of hundreds of other retired generals) that a Knesset vote on annexation might shred the residual legitimacy of security coordination.

Whether the Palestinian Authority (PA) itself survives this moment or not, and whether its leadership would still wish for security coordination to continue, might be irrelevant. If those currently serving in the security agencies refuse to show up for work, one can only hope that they do not show up with their weapons in mass protests against the annexation.

If Palestinian security coordination ceases to be effective, and with Hamas well organized and prepared to exploit the ensuing security vacuum, Israel will have no choice but to reoccupy the entire West Bank—all Palestinian population centers currently under PA administration included. Should this scenario materialize in the West Bank, one must assume that in Gaza, Hamas is unlikely to respect its cease-fire understandings with Israel. Should Hamas join the confrontation, Israel may have no option but to reoccupy the Gaza Strip as well.

Consequently, what might start after July 1 with a Knesset vote on a partial annexation may soon thereafter spin out of control and lead to a complete Israeli takeover of the West Bank and Gaza, meaning that Israel’s military would be the sole entity ruling over millions of Palestinians—with no exit strategy.

What might start after July 1 with a Knesset vote on partial annexation could spin out of control and lead to a complete Israeli takeover of the West Bank and Gaza—with Israel’s military ruling over millions of Palestinians—with no exit strategy. 

In such a situation, any hope the Trump team might have had for its “deal of the century” to eventually bring Israelis and Palestinians together would evaporate. Likewise, no other diplomatic effort is likely to resurrect prospects for a two-state deal anytime soon. Rescuing Israel from the impossible dilemma of giving up its Jewish identity by granting annexed Palestinians equal rights or forfeiting its democracy by depriving them of those rights may turn out to be a mission impossible.

The awakening of many here in Israel and some in the United States to the imminence of this danger offers some hope that steps might be taken during the coming 10 weeks in time to prevent this dire outcome.

Deterring unilateral annexation is both urgent and essential. Those who care for Israel’s future as a secure Jewish democracy that upholds the values enshrined in its declaration of independence must act now.

Ami Ayalon, a retired admiral, is a former director of the Shin Bet, former commander in chief of the Israeli Navy, and the author of the forthcoming book Friendly Fire. He is a member of Commanders for Israel’s Security.

Tamir Pardo is a former director of the Mossad. He is a member of Commanders for Israel’s Security.

Gadi Shamni, a retired major general, is a former commander of the Israel Defense Forces Central Command, military secretary to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and a former defense attache in the United States. He is a member of Commanders for Israel’s Security.

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