The Guardian / June 11, 2020
Netanyahu’s threat will end hopes of a two-state system and probably result in expulsions and violence.
Unsurprisingly, Benjamin Netanyahu has now made things starkly clear. On 28 May the Israeli prime minister explained that when – not if – his government goes ahead with unilateral annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, thousands of Palestinian residents would be granted neither citizenship nor equal rights.
Shortly before that, a group of Israeli settlers posted a photograph of themselves gazing at a map of what they, like Netanyahu, call by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria, prompting comments from Palestinians – and liberal Israelis – that the image captured the institutionalisation of a formal apartheid system. It is hard to argue with that conclusion.
Netanyahu made his statement after three deadlocked elections enabled his Likud party to finally form a coalition with his former rival, the centrist Blue and White leader Benny Gantz. Under their agreement, from 1 July, in coordination with the US, steps will be taken to formally annex illegal Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley.
It is not yet certain exactly what will happen. Donald Trump’s re-election prospects are an important variable, given the volatile domestic situation in the US, as are likely reactions from Jordan and Egypt – the only Arab states to have peace treaties with Israel. But the devil is not in the detail. If annexation of any territory goes ahead it will flagrantly breach international law and countless UN resolutions. It cannot go unanswered. Israel should face sanctions, just as Russia did when it annexed the Crimea from Ukraine.
And worse, it will be the final nail in the coffin of what for decades has been rightly seen as the only possible solution to the world’s most intractable and divisive conflict – two sovereign states for the two peoples who inhabit the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river, whether they like it or not (and many, of course, do not).
Increasingly, supporters of Palestinian rights welcome this looming Israeli threat. “Bring annexation on!” they insist. The worse, the better. “You don’t have to be an anarchist or a Marxist to see the latent opportunity in this terrible vision,” as Gideon Levy, the Haaretz columnist, argued recently. Palestinian civil society activist Alaa Tartir decried “obsession with the idea of statehood…under colonialism”.
It has become fashionable to argue that Netanyahu’s move will clarify, once and for all, that two states is a fantasy that serves only as a fig-leaf for creeping Israeli annexation that has been under way since 1967 and has accelerated in the last two decades. The current, “one-state reality” has been in place for a long time.
Advocates insist that annexation will mean no longer focusing in vain on a cost-free occupation, but on a rights-based approach that will transform Israel into apartheid-era South Africa, albeit one with more or less equal populations – not the 11% white minority that ruled from Pretoria until 1994. Impunity will end.
Now, it is certainly hard to claim that two states is within reach. No peace negotiations have been held since 2014. In 2008 Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas came close to a deal but failed to deliver it. Before that, the high hopes of the first intifada in 1987 evaporated as it became clear that the Oslo agreement of 1993 was not going to deliver a Palestinian state. The second intifada dealt them a near-fatal blow. But is there an alternative?
The truth is that no one has a remotely workable strategy for achieving one unitary state with equal rights for all. On the Israeli side, the tiny movement of “Two States, One Homeland” is the nearest anyone has come to mapping out a confederal relationship: that would permit, in theory at least, Palestinians to exercise their right of return and Israeli Jews being able to live in places that matter to them on religious or nationalist grounds. It is a stretch to believe in that, to put it mildly.
Annexation will make things worse: short-term risks include the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and an end to what remains of Oslo, a crisis in Israel’s relations with Jordan and Egypt with its de facto allies in the Gulf, and, above all, a resurgence of violence that could make the last intifada look tame. It will also destabilise an already volatile region, offering rich opportunities for Iran and Hizbullah to exploit.
Palestinians will suffer directly. “It will lead,” as the lawyer Michael Sfard has warned, “to massive expropriation, automatic in some cases, of Palestinian land and property, the subsequent expulsion of individuals, families and entire communities from the annexed territories.” And the situation in blockaded Gaza, home to two million Palestinians, will remain unchanged.
In the big picture, annexation will mark a historic turning-point for Palestine. Future historians will compare it with the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the wars of 1948 and 1967. It will overturn the fundamental principle, recognised by Britain’s Peel Commission in 1937 and by the fledgling United Nations in 1947, that the only way to resolve the conflict is to partition the Holy Land into separate Jewish and Arab states, guaranteeing national self-determination for both peoples who claim it as their own.
Amidst unprecedented global distractions, signs of a concerted international response are hardly encouraging. Trump’s “deal of the century” has understandably been dismissed by Palestinians, wherever their loyalties lie. The democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, is not radical enough to undo the damage Trump has caused. The European Union is divided. Britain is preoccupied by the unresolved issues of a post-Brexit world, and looks unlikely to act in any meaningful way.
Unilateral annexation will lead Israelis and Palestinians and their profoundly asymmetrical conflict into uncharted territory. But if history teaches one lesson, it is that facts on the ground, illegal or not, are unlikely to be reversed without violence. And even if annexation is delayed or does not happen, the situation will not have improved. No happy end is in sight.
Ian Black is a former Middle East editor and diplomatic editor of the Guardian and a visiting senior fellow at the Middle East Centre, LSE; his latest book is Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017