Annexation Will Probably Go Smoothly. The Problems Will Come Later.
Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territory won’t trigger a disaster. But the aftermath will be toxic for the Jewish state.
The timing and scope of the plan is still uncertain, but when Israel announces its expected decision to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, the world’s attention will turn to the immediate impact. People who care about the region will be watching closely to see if Palestinians rise up in protest, if the Palestinian Authority will collapse or be disbanded, if Arab countries cut off budding ties with Israel, or if European countries impose sanctions on Israel or recognize a Palestinian state. After all the warnings that annexation will trigger a disaster, all eyes will be on how the various parties respond.
The good news for proponents of annexation is that while such dramatic developments are possible, none are likely. The bad news for them, however, is what annexation means in the longer term. Israel’s formal incorporation of parts of the West Bank will not only violate international law and deny Palestinians basic rights, but it will set off a process that will further erode Israeli democracy, isolate Israel internationally, and undermine the bipartisan U.S. support that has been so central to its success.
By destroying any remaining prospects of keeping the two-state solution alive, annexation will inevitably lead current and future generations of Palestinians to demand equal rights in a single political entity, and Israel’s denial of those rights will weaken its support around the world. Israel may get more territory in the short term but come to regret it, while Palestinians forced to swallow annexation may ultimately embrace it as having advanced their fight for equal rights by destroying the ever more elusive fantasy of the two-state solution.
Predictions of catastrophe have often accompanied Israeli or U.S. decisions that are hostile to Palestinians, and they have just as often proven wrong. The latest example was the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which, for all its heavy symbolism, elicited an underwhelming response. U.S. President Donald Trump and his advisors have been quick to point to that precedent in arguing that annexation likewise would pass without a tremor. As Trump put it in October 2019, “Remember the world was going to come to an end, right? Nothing happened.” Promising a “big announcement” on annexation when speaking to the press on June 25, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said, “There’s always this scare tactic … of all the bad that’s going to happen, and then it doesn’t happen.”
Annexation could play out in similar ways, at least in the short run. Especially if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eschews the most ambitious version of annexation—30 percent of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley—and opts instead for a narrower plan under which Israel annexes those settlement blocs already assigned to Israel in most existing peace maps, the immediate consequences may be limited. Israel exercises virtually complete security control over the West Bank, and Palestinians seem unlikely to want to risk the harsh repression, suffering, and chaos that would follow any uprising. The Palestinian leadership has warned it will sever all ties to Israel and dismantle the Palestinian Authority (PA), which would compel Israel to assume the full costs and risks of its occupation. A decision to fully take down the PA is not inconceivable. But since doing so would jeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of PA employees, paralyze crucial public services, and negate the privileges the PA’s leaders still enjoy, it is the kind of threat far more useful as a deterrent than when actually carried out.
Arab countries likewise have warned of dire implications. Jordan has raised the specter of a “massive conflict” with Israel, and the United Arab Emirates has asserted that Israel could have either annexation or normalization but not both. Here too, skepticism is in order. Jordan has an enduring interest in sustaining its peace treaty with Israel, particularly at a time of serious economic distress, and will want to avoid triggering greater instability. And the United Arab Emirates, along with other Gulf Arab states, has developed quiet, behind-the-scenes ties to Israel for reasons that will endure regardless of what Israel does on the West Bank. The new generation of Gulf Arab leaders do not have the same passion for the Palestinian cause as their predecessors did and are unlikely to subordinate their main priority—cooperation with Israel against Iran—to it. They will no doubt oppose any form of annexation in public, if only to protect themselves against accusations of betrayal from Iran, Turkey, and their own populations. But the kind of normalization that matters—cooperation between security services and other covert ties—will almost certainly continue.
Europeans will protest, too, and their leaders—including French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson—have been forceful in cautioning Israel. They may consider more forward-leaning ideas, such as a ban on goods imported from annexed areas, suspending the EU-Israel trade agreement, or recognizing a Palestinian state on undetermined borders. In practice, however, it is hard to see many Europeans taking steps that would truly punish Israel given their own internal divisions, domestic politics, and broader interests in relations with the Jewish state.
That leaves the United States. Trump’s position is not at issue, since annexation, according to the Israeli government’s own coalition agreement, will occur only with Washington’s blessing. If elected U.S. president in November, former Vice President Joe Biden would likely denounce the unilateral Israeli move, which he has strongly opposed, but at the same time he has made clear that his broader support for Israel is unreserved and has categorically ruled out conditioning military aid. Most Democrats in Congress, almost all of whom have expressed clear opposition to annexation, will take a similar stance. The predictable end result will be strong criticism of Israel, paired with blame for the Palestinian leadership for its refusal to negotiate. Under a limited annexation scenario, some will even give Netanyahu credit for listening to critics and supposedly salvaging the possibility of a two-state solution. Annexation will proceed, the new map will be presented as the basis for future territorial negotiations, and many Israelis will once again feel that they have advanced their interests without paying a price.
The longer term, however, is a different story. Even if annexation changes nothing on the ground on day one, it would represent a fundamental turning point. Annexation may be the final nail in the coffin of a genuine two-state solution—as opposed to the Palestinian pseudostate Netanyahu has said he accepts and the Trump plan contemplates. That plan will never work—not only because it is virtually impossible to construct a viable, sovereign, contiguous Palestinian state on the disjointed parcels of territory that would remain, but also for political and psychological reasons. What Palestinian leader could agree to sit down with a party that has formally taken the land over which they are supposed to negotiate? Already, much of the Palestinian public has lost faith in the Palestinian Authority, in talks with Israel, and in U.S. mediation. It would not take much for them to turn in another direction entirely.
The signs of what is to come are already there. Among young Palestinians in the territories, in Israel, and in the diaspora, the two-state solution is viewed as worse than unrealistic—it is unappealing. It has become an unattractive compromise that would restrict the lives of those living in the West Bank and Gaza to a narrow, disjointed entity, deny them a true capital in Jerusalem, entrench inequality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, give Israelis security control over their country, and prevent even a symbolic number of refugees from returning to their former homes. For the current Palestinian leadership, annexation will make the already difficult task of defending the two-state solution an almost impossible one. With demographics on their side, the next generation of Palestinians will likely take this to the next logical step: away from the dreary and improbable two-state solution toward the more inspiring (if equally implausible) struggle for a single, democratic state with equal political rights for all. Rather than looking to the United States or United Nations to help them negotiate with Israel, they will be more inclined to appeal to the International Criminal Court to bring charges against the occupation forces and their leaders.
Over time, annexation could have similar effects on U.S. politics. Already, it is causing fissures in what was once wall-to-wall bipartisan support for Israel, with even staunchly pro-Israel Democrats in Congress appealing to Netanyahu not to act. Down the road, the picture could change dramatically. The Democratic Party is becoming younger, more diverse, and more attuned to broad movements for equal rights such as Black Lives Matter. Opinion polls show declining support for Israel among women, minorities, millennials, and liberals, who increasingly support sanctions to penalize Israel over settlement expansion, human rights abuses, or the use of military force in Gaza. These groups will be more likely to equate annexationist Israel with apartheid South Africa, espouse the ideals of equal rights and democratic representation, and increasingly challenge their leadership’s traditionally close ties to Israel.
This evolution could continue to be gradual or, as was the surge of support for Black Lives Matter, abrupt. According to a recent poll, 48 percent of Americans identifying as Democrats support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, and only 15 percent oppose it. Meanwhile, 81 percent of Democrats favor Israel’s democracy more than its Jewishness and support Arab and Jewish equality if a two-state solution is ruled out, “even if that means Israel would no longer be a politically Jewish state.” And only 13 percent of Democrats favor Israel’s Jewishness more than its democracy, “even if it means that Palestinians will not have citizenship and full rights.” Those are numbers that should make Israel and its supporters think twice. For now, calls by progressive members of Congress to harshly criticize Israel’s human rights record and condition U.S. military support have only limited support. But trends within the party are clear, and combined with a scenario in which Israel continues to deny millions of Palestinians their rights could lead to dramatic changes over time.
There is no reason to expect an earthquake in the wake of an Israeli annexation decision. But it would be a mistake to confuse calm with insignificance. Annexation would accelerate a profound shift, already underway, in the ways in which various parties view the conflict and its eventual resolution. The days that follow Israeli annexation may not look a lot different from the days that precede it. But no one should be surprised if, a few years down the road, Israelis find themselves yearning for the two-state solution they will have helped to bury, and Palestinians embrace the idea of a one-state solution that Israel’s actions helped produce.
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, forthcoming in October 2020.