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The United States Doesn’t Get Israel Anymore

It’s not Benjamin Netanyahu’s coming West Bank annexation that’s shocking—it’s Washington’s surprised reaction to it.

Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Ramat Gan, Israel, on Sept. 10, 2019. Amir Levy/Getty Images

Ever since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White coalition, reached a deal on an emergency government, my email inbox has reached a critical mass of commentary, analyses, warnings, invitations to virtual briefings, and calls to action by an alphabet soup of organizations in the United States. The issue that has them so worked up is Israel’s planned annexation of land in the West Bank.

There’s indeed something shocking about this—but it’s less the annexation itself than Washington’s red-alert reaction to it. There should be nothing surprising about either Israel’s intention to annex territory that does not belong to it or Gantz’s willingness to consent to that policy. (His problem with the prime minister was always mostly about Netanyahu’s personal conduct.) What we really need an explanation for is the dismayed reaction to the coming annexation among observers in the United States.

What exactly did these people imagine was going to happen? Over the last five decades, successive Israeli governments have invested in the development of cities and towns in the West Bank as well as the infrastructure necessary to link them to cities and towns in Israel. The unstated, but clear to the naked eye, goal was to render such places as Ofra, a town of 3,000 near Nablus, no different from Ramat Hasharon, a suburb of Tel Aviv—meaning an unquestioned and uncontested part of Israel. It defies logic to believe that Israel would ever give up on this long-term project.

Yet that is exactly what folks inside the Beltway, including long-term Israel watchers, former officials, and opinion writers, have been doing for years. It is not that these analysts are willfully ignorant. But they have harbored a mythology around Israel, the peace process, and Palestine that has made it virtually impossible to grapple with the reality of Israeli annexation. Now it may be too late.

There was a time when peace seemed possible both to Israelis and Americans—namely, the 1990s. The United States was at the zenith of its power, the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized Israel’s right to exist, and Israelis as well as Americans routinely engaged in diplomacy with Palestinian leaders. Yasser Arafat visited the Oval Office multiple times and paid a condolence call at Yitzhak Rabin’s home after the Israeli leader was assassinated.

There were, of course, serious challenges during that era. In addition to Rabin’s death at the hands of an Israeli extremist, Palestinian groups terrorized Israel’s cities with waves of bus bombings. Yet negotiations continued.

Likud came back to power with Netanyahu as prime minister in 1996. In retrospect, this is when the views on Israel from the United States started to become divorced from reality. It was during Netanyahu’s first stint as prime minister that the Hebron Protocol (1997) and Wye River Memorandum (1998) were signed. These agreements were both monumental—for Washington, though not Israel (where they never amounted to much). What American diplomats, analysts, and journalists learned, or believed they learned, from them was that Israel could be nudged from a ruinous path of permanent occupation and annexation.

The Second Intifada should have laid bare the bankruptcy of the peace process, which after almost a decade of investment collapsed swiftly in September 2000. The dirty small-scale war that ensued was a searing experience for Israelis and Palestinians alike. A lot has been written about the its impact on Israeli society, but suffice it to say that the peace camp became irrelevant. Israel’s national zeitgeist went from Prime Minister Shimon Peres’s “New Middle East” to Netanyahu’s “there is no partner [for peace]” and has never shifted back.

This change has been a boon to the settlement project. Those Israelis who oppose these policies have failed to offer a coherent alternative that overcomes the “no partner” obstacle. And yet there remains in Washington the stubborn notion that peace is possible and therefore annexation must be avoided.

This hope is based on a belief baked into the peacemaking ethos that with enough encouragement, guarantees, and even implicit threats, Israelis could be brought around to make a deal. The same logic applies to the problem of annexation, but the idea that the United States can bring the occupation/annexation to an end runs counter to experience as well as politics, psychology, and geography. Throughout the 1990s, U.S. officials developed elaborate and ingenious bridging proposals and interim agreements (like the aforementioned Hebron Protocol and Wye River Memorandum), but to no avail. It was never enough to satisfy the minimum requirements for peace of either the Israelis or Palestinians.

Yet the idea that the United States can be decisive lives on. While friends of Israel in the U.S. Congress have expressed “concern” and warned that unilateral actions—such as annexation—would make it more difficult to achieve a “sustainable peace,” others have argued that former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive presidential nominee for the Democratic Party, could convince the Israeli government to “think twice” about annexation or “at least limit its scope.” A Biden administration, if he wins in the November election, would apparently accomplish this through dialogue and threats both to limit U.S. diplomatic support to Israel in the face of international condemnation over annexation and to condition aid to Israel. The Trump administration has reportedly told Israeli officials that it would only bless annexation of parts of the West Bank if Jerusalem recognized a Palestinian state under the terms of presidential advisor Jared Kushner’s peace plan. That is tough stuff coming from a White House that has been singularly attentive to Netanyahu’s political needs.

But the truth is neither persuasion nor coercion are likely to work. Well-meaning members of Congress and analysts overlook an important fact about the West Bank: For a significant number of Israelis (including officials), annexation is an existential issue, and the rest—possibly the majority—either do not care enough about the issue, because to their minds there is no partner for peace, or they are too weak to do anything about it.

The view that the United States can cajole or pressure Israel into giving up annexation also does not make sense against the backdrop of the West Bank’s historical weight. It is, after all, the cradle of Judaism, but it has also become the holy of holies in terms of Israeli security, all the more so since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza—intended in part to strengthen Israel’s grip on the West Bank—resulted in a two-year-long barrage of rocket fire on adjacent towns. The lesson Israelis apparently learned from that experience is clear: hold on to territory, international condemnation be damned. Under these circumstances, it seems that, regardless of whatever incentives or threats the United States can bring to bear with the goal of forestalling annexation, they are unlikely to work given the way Israelis have defined the stakes—life or death.

The most likely outcome is that the whoever is serving in the White House when the time comes will accommodate themselves to annexation of certain parts of the West Bank with Israeli promises not to go any further and to recommit to the peace process. Of course, it is unlikely the Palestinians would agree to move forward under these conditions, extending a stalemate that only serves the long-term goal of annexation. Observers in Washington can claim to be as shocked as they want, but they would be better off reckoning with this entirely predictable future.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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