Israeli cabinet takes major step toward annexation of the West Bank

Yumna Patel

Mondoweiss  /  June 21, 2023

Far-right Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has been given increased power over Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank. This transfer of power isn’t just a move towards increased settlement expansion but towards annexation.

This week the Israeli government made a dangerous move that makes annexation of the West Bank an even closer reality, analysts say. 

On Sunday, the Israeli cabinet met and announced plans to advance the construction of more than 4,560 settlement units in the West Bank. The cabinet also amended a law to allow Jewish settlers to return to previously evacuated settlements and outposts, including the recently re-inhabited Homesh outpost. 

The announcement was condemned by Palestinian and UN officials, who called on Israel to halt settlement expansion. Even the US chimed in, with the State Department calling it “deeply troubling.”

But even more disturbing than the furthering of thousands of settlements in the West Bank and the steps towards legalizing violent outposts is the not-so-small transfer of power that was formalized in Sunday’s meeting, which will make future settlement construction much easier.

According to an Axios report, the cabinet passed a resolution transferring the authority to approve settlement building plans from Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, to ultra-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionism party. 

A little background on Smotrich, in case you aren’t familiar: Smotrich, a settler himself, is known for his anti-Palestinian views and advocating to “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwwara. Smotrich is part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right governing coalition, and in addition to openly saying “Palestinians don’t exist,” has openly supported the illegal annexation of the West Bank

“We will continue to develop the settlement of and strengthen the Israeli hold on the territory,” Smotrich said at Sunday’s meeting. 

In addition to the official transfer of powers, which comes along with even more powers in the West Bank for Smotrich announced earlier this year, the resolution reduced the stages of political approval that settlement planning must go through, from the previous four to five stages, to now just one or two stages. It also vastly shrunk the window of opportunity for any sort of intervention in the settlement construction process.

With Smotrich in control, plus the amended laws, settlement expansion has gotten much easier for the pro-settlement camp. It is also sounding alarms (again) over the Israeli annexation of the West Bank. Is annexation more possible now, or is it already a reality? And what does it mean for the 3+ million Palestinians living in the West Bank?

What does this mean for Palestinians?

The latest reign of Prime Minister Netanyahu has already seen a significant rise in settlement construction. Since he took office in January, his coalition has approved the promotion of more than 7,000 new housing units in West Bank settlements, Reuters reported. With Smotrich, those numbers are expected to vastly increase.  

As a result, the resolution on Sunday was welcomed by settler groups and settler leaders in the West Bank, who recognized the significant gains their communities would benefit from having Smotrich in near total control when it comes to settlement planning and approval on construction.

Naturally, where the settlers stand to gain, Palestinians stand to lose. 

“I think Palestinians in the West Bank should plan and prepare for the worst over the coming months,” Tariq Kenney-Shawa, the US Policy Fellow at the Palestinian thinktank Al-Shabaka, told Mondoweiss

“This government led by the likes of Netanyahu, Smotrich, and Ben-Gvir is emboldened to push the boundaries to see what they can get away with. Legalizing outposts and expanding settlements are going to be just the beginning.”

Kenney-Shawa added that one area to keep an eye on is what’s known as the “E1” area of the West Bank, which lies in the central West Bank on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It’s been at the heart of Israel’s settlement expansion plans for years and has been the driving force behind plans to demolish surrounding Palestinian villages like Khan al-Ahmar. Earlier this year, plans to build thousands of settlement housing units in E1 were put back on the table by Israeli authorities. 

“Settlement expansion here is especially sensitive because it would prevent Palestinian territorial contiguity between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank, making a viable Palestinian state even less likely than it already is,” Kenney-Shawa said. 

“For decades, the US has pressed Israel not to build in the area. However, because of the impunity they’ve gotten used to, I expect Israel’s emboldened far-right government to keep pushing the boundaries when it comes to settlement expansion in E1 and beyond.”

If Israel’s plans to expand settlements in areas like E1, for example, succeed, it would mean effectively cutting off the North of the West Bank from the South, holding everyday consequences for Palestinians and their freedom of movement across the territory. Additionally, it could likely mean the reinvigoration of plans to demolish the Bedouin villages in the area, like Khan al-Ahmar. 

Outside of E1, Palestinians who live in areas where settlements already exist, or with land that is designated as ‘Area C’ and is under threat of being taken over by Israel, will likely be bracing themselves for more land confiscation and home demolitions to make way for settlement constructions. 

Of course, Palestinians in particularly vulnerable areas where violent illegal outposts are being re-inhabited and reestablished are expected to face more settler violence on their communities and property. 

“Because Israeli leaders believe themselves entitled to all of historic Palestine, and because they have become so used to operating without fear of accountability under international law, settlement expansion will continue at an increasing pace,” Kenney-Shawa said. 

Is this a move towards annexation?

The big question following Sunday’s cabinet meeting has to do with annexation. Does handing powers over the settlements, which have historically been controlled by bodies of the Israeli Defense Ministry and military, to a civilian ministry like the Minister of Finance (Smotrich), amount to annexation of the West Bank? Or at least, a step towards it?

First, Kenney-Shawa, noted the importance of the difference between two terms you’ve likely come across when it comes to Israel’s control over the West Bank: de facto and de jure annexation. 

De facto annexation is annexation “in fact,” while de jure annexation refers to annexation “in law.”

“When it comes to Palestine, where Israel exerts full sovereignty and controls the lives of all Palestinians between the river and the sea, the distinction may sound silly, but it is important,” Kenney-Shawa said. 

“For decades, Israel’s annexation of the West Bank has been de facto in that while it does exert full sovereignty, while it always has built settlements at will, opened and closed borders whenever it chooses, etc., it was not annexed ‘in law.’

This legal distinction, Kenney-Shawa said, has allowed Israel to “shroud the occupation in a false veneer of impermanence” that has “fueled the myth” of working towards a two-state solution, while in reality there is one government – Israel – controlling virtually everything between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. 

After Sunday’s cabinet meeting, however, Israeli annexation of the West Bank is now a reality, Kenney-Shawa said. 

“Now, with the transfer of the West Bank from military rule to civilian authority under Smotrich, the annexation of the West Bank is now de jure, highlighting the one state reality and erasing the myth that the occupation is temporary.”

Will the US do anything about it?

If Israel officially annexes the West Bank, the next natural question is whether anyone is doing anything about it. In short, beyond some statements from UN representatives and vague declarations of disapproval from the State Department, not much is being done to stop Israel from moving down the path it’s on. 

Kenney-Shawa says he expects to see much of the same from the US in response to the latest news. The same, being, a whole lot of nothing. 

“I’m confident that we will see more of the same when it comes to the long-standing US policy of turning a blind eye to Israel’s violations and shielding Israel from accountability,” Kenney-Shawa said, adding that the Biden administration has largely deprioritized Israel and Palestine, in favor of expanding normalization between Israel and Arab states. 

“Biden also does not dare cross the pro-Israel lobby and risk losing key support that may cost him a second term in the White House. Keep in mind, this all goes against the democratic will of Democratic voters who have become overwhelmingly critical of Israel,” Kenney-Shawa noted. 

The furthest that we will see Washington go in terms of reprimanding Israel, he added, will be expressions of “deep concern” and “recycling the same ‘both-sides’ rhetoric” while calling for “calm.”

“Biden has kept Netanyahu at arm’s length in response to the judicial overhaul, but I don’t expect that to last forever, as support for Israel will increasingly become a partisan cudgel, and Biden will be pressured to embrace Netanyahu as before,” Kenny-Shawa said. 

And if a recent interview with Netanyahu, in which he flat out says Israel doesn’t view settlements as illegal (spoiler alert: international law says very clearly that they are), is any indication, Israel knows that they will face no accountability or action from international actors when it comes to their blatant disregard for international law.

“This represents the crux of the issue – Israeli leaders, not just Netanyahu, believe themselves biblically entitled to the West Bank. To them, there is no law that can deny them this perceived divine right,” Kenney-Shawa said, adding that for Israel, “international law is only applicable when it benefits their settler-colonial aspirations.”

“When international law opposes Israel’s interests or demands accountability for Israel’s violations, it is smeared as illegitimate or antisemitic. 

Netanyahu knows Biden’s constraints and will continue testing the boundaries of the “special” US-Israel relationship as long as he is in power. This combination – the “divine” entitlement Israeli leaders feel, coupled with their sense of absolute impunity – is driving the current escalation that will only become increasingly violent over the coming months.”

Yumna Patel is the Palestine News Director for Mondoweiss