Israel has quietly annexed the West Bank and Biden stays silent

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  / February 25, 2023 

While the Biden administration claims to oppose “unilateral steps that make a two-state solution harder to achieve,” Israel has already crossed the “red line” of annexation.

On Thursday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price was, as he so often is, flummoxed by what should have been an obvious question in his daily press briefing. Palestinian journalist Said Arikat asked Price about an announcement that day that governing authority over the West Bank had been transferred from the Israeli military authorities to the new office governing settlement activity in Israel’s Ministry of Defense. That office will be run by the radical, far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. 

Price’s response to Arikat was that “we’re aware” of the announcement “that only recently emanated from Israel,” and that “we’re working to better understand this announcement – this announcement and any potential implications.” 

As usual, Price’s response was, to put it mildly, misleading.

The announcement was the culmination of two months of wrangling in Israel, but it was the fulfillment of a promise Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made as part of the coalition agreement that formed his new government. In other words, the administration has had two months to “understand” this announcement and its implications.

Those implications are clear: practical annexation of the West Bank. 

As Israeli attorney Michael Sfard put it: “Transferring powers to Israeli civilian hands is an act of de jure annexation because it entails removing power from the occupying military and placing it directly in the hands of the government — this is an expression of sovereignty. The bottom line is that the agreement signed today is simultaneously a giant leap of  legal annexation of the West Bank and an act of perpetuating the regime’s apartheid nature.”

The hypocrisy of this administration’s insistence on clinging to the long-dead illusion of a “two-state solution” is on full display here. There is nothing Israel could possibly do that would preclude this illusion more than this. 

Price himself seems to understand this, as he stated: “We believe it’s critical for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to refrain from any unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions or have the potential to undercut efforts to advance the prospects for a negotiated two‑state solution. Those steps are many. We’ve given illustrative examples, but they certainly include annexation of territory.”

Arikat never mentioned annexation in his question. Price went there because he, like his bosses, “understand” this agreement only too well. They must have understood it from the first. But while they have exerted the sort of pressure on Israel that we have rarely seen in the history of the U.S.-Israel relationship over the new Israeli government’s efforts to gut its own judiciary—a matter of concern, to be sure, but one that is largely internal to Israel—they are utterly passive as Israel is, as three leading Israeli human rights groups put it, “carrying out a legal, de jure, annexation of the West Bank.”

There is one scant mention, in Middle East Eye,  of the Palestinian Authority “condemning” this move, but if they did so, it was the quietest condemnation ever for even that meek body. In fact, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, while meeting with a delegation from the U.S. Senate led by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer did not even mention the annexation, but simply called for a halt to Israeli settlement expansion. 

Yet, as Wesam Ahmad, an advocate with the Palestinian human rights group, Al-Haq, said: “Formal annexation, which the international community has consistently considered a red line, has been crossed. Unfortunately, the response has been mostly silence.” 

Given the escalation in Israeli raids into Palestinian towns since this new government took over, and especially in the past week with the raid on Nablus that killed 11 Palestinians and injured over 100 and a new wave of bombings in Gaza after some ineffectual rocket fire, it is understandable that what seems like an administrative move by Israel is not top of mind for most Palestinians at the moment. 

Smotrich in charge of the West Bank: what does it mean?

In essence, giving Smotrich control over the West Bank gives him the power to decide on new settlements, legalizing so-called outposts, expanding existing settlements, and granting or withholding permission to Palestinians for any expansion in their towns and villages—mostly withholding.

It is virtually certain that this will mean that, under Smotrich’s rule, even illegal wildcat settlement construction will not be taken down, even as regularly as in the past—which was never very “regular,” but often depended on the politics of the moment. Meanwhile, the enforcement of the demolition of buildings without permits for Palestinians—permits which for Palestinians are virtually impossible to obtain—will be even more swift and merciless than it has been. 

But since Israel just announced a massive wave of new settlement construction and outpost legalization and with several months before the planning commission meets (not coincidentally, those being the months during which Israel promised the United States it would make no further settlement announcements), Palestinians are not immediately feeling the effect of this change. The United States, and the rest of the international community, have no such excuses. The Biden administration knew this was coming, as did anyone who was paying the slightest bit of attention to the negotiations Benjamin Netanyahu undertook to form his government. 

Yet there was no warning sent to the Israeli government to “avoid unilateral steps that make a two-state solution harder to achieve,” a mantra Biden administration representatives repeat ad nauseam. 

Of course, the constant repetition of “two-state solution” is nonsense, a fig leaf presented to media audiences to cover American and European indifference to Palestinian rights and inaction in the face of Israeli expansionism. 

But this is annexation. It is placing the civilian government of Israel in control of the West Bank, just as it is in control of Tel Aviv, Haifa, Ashkelon, and Beersheva. And it’s not being done surreptitiously, even though few Americans or Europeans are paying attention. Consider what Smotrich himself said: “I thank the prime minister who understood the importance of the issue during the coalition negotiations. Citizens of Judea and Samaria will receive equal treatment and equal citizenship.” 

Naomi Linder Kahn, director of the Israeli pro-settler, right-wing advocacy group Regavim, told Middle East Eye that the move was a “very good step in the right direction.” 

“We have been calling for the dismantling of the administration in the West Bank for years,” Kahn said. “The situation is unprecedented anywhere in the world. We are talking about making life normal for people living there.” 

What is unprecedented to Kahn is that Jewish settlers in the West Bank have had to live under slightly different rules and conditions than their counterparts within the borders of 1949 Israel. And it is certainly an unusual situation, one which should never have arisen and would not have arisen had Israel not been in brazen violation of the Geneva Conventions, which forbid transferring the civilian population of an occupying power into occupied territory, for over 55 years. 

That sort of colonialism is not unprecedented, but using a long-term military occupation to do it is unusual.

Yet what does the Biden administration have to say about this? Here is Ned Price again: “We believe it’s incumbent on both parties, Israelis and Palestinians, to take steps that in the first instance don’t further escalate tensions. Tensions are already far too high. They are far too high for anyone’s liking—certainly ours. But from there, to take steps to actually de-escalate tensions, to take steps that bring down the temperature, that will allow the parties to work together to improve the security situation in the West Bank…and to address the tensions that have been inflamed of late.”

There is no “both parties” here. The massive expansion of settlements and dramatic rise in Israeli violence is not matched on the Palestinian side. That under these conditions some Palestinian individuals turn to violence is a ubiquitous feature of populations under occupation, as is the rise of armed groups like the Lions’ Den in response to repeated military attacks on civilian populations under occupation.

If the United States truly cared even about “de-escalation,” it would respond to Israel’s annexation. Even the administration of Donald Trump, when faced with the proposition that the previous Netanyahu government would annex the West Bank, eventually pushed back and pressed Israel not to take such an action. Granted, this time around Israel is not framing it loudly as annexation as they did in 2020, but that’s what it is, and Biden is simply allowing it to move forward. In the last analysis, that betrays the reality that even Biden’s tiresome insistence on a two-state solution is as phony as a three-dollar bill, barely concealing the actual policy, which is to allow Israel to act as it wishes to the greatest extent that is politically feasible, while continuing the flow of military aid and diplomatic cover from Washington to Jerusalem. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics