Israel’s cabinet meets to finalise annexation plans

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters)

Harriet Sherwood

The Observer  /  June 28, 2020 

Calls for sanctions are intensifying as the cabinet meets and Netanyahu awaits US approval.

The Israeli cabinet will meet on Sunday to finalise plans to annex parts of the West Bank amid growing international opposition and calls for sanctions to be imposed if the proposal is implemented.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel will “apply sovereignty” to up to 30% of the West Bank, covering Israeli settlements and the rich agricultural lands of the Jordan Valley, from 1 July.

On Friday, two rockets were fired from Gaza towards Israel a day after the Palestinian group Hamas warned that annexation amounted to a “declaration of war”. In response, Israeli air force jets struck two military facilities in the southern Gaza Strip, the army said.

The head of Mossad, the Israeli secret service, visited Amman last week to discuss the annexation plan with King Abdullah of Jordan after he warned of a “massive conflict” with Israel if it proceeded.

Despite Netanyahu’s pledge to give the order to annex on Wednesday, he may be forced to dilute or delay the proposal after three days of deliberations at the White House last week ended without an endorsement.

Netanyahu had been counting on the backing of the Trump administration after it unveiled its “vision for peace” six months ago which said Jewish settlements in the West Bank – illegal under international law – and the Jordan Valley would be incorporated into Israel. Kellyanne Conway, a top aide to the US president, said on Thursday that Donald Trump was poised to make a “big announcement” on Israel’s planned annexation, but White House officials later said talks were set to continue.

Although there is substantial international opposition to annexation, Trump’s endorsement would shore up his crucial support base among evangelical Christians in the US for November’s presidential election.

Hard-line nationalists in Israel regard Trump’s presidency as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to carry out measures that were unacceptable to previous US administrations. The Israeli government, aware that the most pro-Israel president in recent history could fail to win re-election in four months’ time, is keen to move fast.

Last week, the UK, Germany and France were among seven European members of the UN security council that issued a joint statement saying the annexation plan was “a clear violation of international law” that would jeopardise the possibility of a future Palestinian state and would threaten security in the region.

The statement added: “Annexation would have consequences for our close relationship with Israel and would not be recognised by us.”

The statement followed a letter signed by more than 1,000 European parliamentarians, including senior Conservative figures in the UK, which said “acquisition of territory by force … must have commensurate consequences” and called on European leaders to “act decisively”.

The Labour party, a former Conservative chair of the foreign affairs select committee and a former British consul-general to Jerusalem called this weekend for a ban on the import to the UK of goods from illegal settlements in the West Bank in response to annexation.

The archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster have voiced their opposition to the Israeli plan. The Holy Land Coordination Group, composed of bishops from Europe, North America and South Africa, warned the proposed annexation “would only bring more conflict, suffering and division”.

Almost 50 UN experts said in a statement earlier this month that the acquisition of territory by force was a violation of international law. “The international community has prohibited annexation precisely because it incites wars, economic devastation, political instability, systematic human rights abuses and widespread human suffering,” they said.

Human rights violations over more than 50 years of occupation of the West Bank would, the statement said: “Only intensify after annexation. What would be left of the West Bank would be a Palestinian Bantustan, islands of disconnected land completely surrounded by Israel and with no territorial connection to the outside world …

“The morning after annexation would be the crystallisation of an already unjust reality: two peoples living in the same space, ruled by the same state, but with profoundly unequal rights. This is a vision of a 21st-century apartheid.”

A prominent South African Jewish journalist living in Israel has also drawn parallels with the former regime in his home country. Benjamin Pogrund, 87, who reported on events under apartheid for most of his career, previously held the view that applying the term to Israel was “at best ignorant and naive and at worst cynical and manipulative”. But in an interview last week, he said annexation would mean “Israeli overlords in an occupied area, and the people over whom they will be ruling will not have basic rights. That will be apartheid, and we will merit the charge”.

Last week, the Board of Deputies of British Jews agreed to debate a motion reaffirming support for a two-state solution and warning that “unilateral steps” would damage efforts to restart peace talks.

The decision followed growing unease among British Jews over the plan. A letter signed by more than 40 of the most prominent names in British Jewry, including Sir Simon Schama, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Dame Vivien Duffield, warned of an existential threat to Israel and of “grave consequences for the Palestinian people”.

The signatories said their alarm was “shared by large numbers of the British Jewish community, including many in its current leadership”.

Netanyahu’s pledge to annex parts of the West Bank was made during his campaign to win Israel’s third general election within 12 months. Annexation would be “another glorious chapter in the history of Zionism”, he said at his swearing-in ceremony last month.

Harriet Sherwood writes about religion and social issues for The Guardian and The Observer; she was previously Jerusalem correspondent, foreign editor and home editor