Israel’s West Bank annexation is coming, just not in the way you expected

A Palestinian man watches as Israeli forces demolish his home in the West Bank (AFP)

Lily Galili

Middle East Eye  /  December 17, 2022

Jewish settler groups have played key role in government-forming negotiations and have eye on full control of the West Bank.

On 1 December, as soon as coalition agreements were signed between Benjamin Netanyhau’s Likud party and the far-right Religious Zionism and Jewish Power factions, the Yesha Council settler group posted a happy note on Facebook.

“Special thanks to our representatives who collaborated with the professionals of Yesha Council throughout the negotiations,” it exclaimed after congratulating all involved.

“With God’s help, a new government will soon be formed and face the challenges of construction development and preservation of land in Judea and Samaria,” it added, using the Israeli names for the occupied West Bank.

The head of Karnei Shomron, another influential settler group, struck a similar note, telling Ynet TV that the first thing Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich should do in power is apply Israeli law to Judea and Samaria.

“For over 55 years no decisions were made. It’s time to annex Judea and Samaria the same way the Golan Heights was annexed,” he added.

Those comments tell a big story. Not only do they reveal the scope of the involvement that settler groups have had in government-formation negotiations, but they also allow a glimpse into the future pressure they will place on the politicians that some still call “representatives”.

Yet “representatives” is the wrong word for these people. This “Hilltop Youth” government does not represent its electorate, it is the face of the most radical part of it.

Shocked Israelis on the left, centre, and right are already trying to figure out how this radical right/ultra-Orthodox government will impact their everyday life. But it’s not only the nature of Israel it intends to change – it’s the country’s size as well. In other words: annexation of Palestinian lands.

The term “annexation” is hardly mentioned these days, either by the incoming coalition or its battered opposition, which is preoccupied with other burning issues.

It’s a conscious decision out of fear of international reaction. The new coalition can easily dismiss a few demonstrations held by hundreds, or even thousands, of weary leftists rightfully worried about the destruction of the Israeli judicial system. Dealing with international condemnations or even sanctions is a very different story.

That might not scare messianic Smotrich or the trigger-happy Jewish Power leader Itamar Ben-Gvir, but it certainly terrifies Netanyahu. He is very much aware he cannot antagonize the international community, and more specifically the Arab world, with the Iranian nuclear issue – and the Israeli military option to combat it – hanging above his head like Damocles’s sword.

Under these circumstances, the use of the euphemism “application of sovereignty” sounds more savoury than “annexation”. Just like the infamous call “death to Arabs” has been replaced at Ben-Gvir’s order with  “death to terrorists”, the negative connotation of unilateral annexation is now intentionally replaced with a phrase deemed more politically legitimate.

From a legal perspective, they are the same. In a recent radio interview, Religious Zionism MP Simha Rotman claimed you cannot annex a territory that was a kind of “no man’s land”. Rather, you can – and should – legally apply sovereignty.

The first steps

Though hardly mentioned by the incoming ministers, all acts and coalition agreements spell annexation.

The most alarming sign is the transfer of two army units charged with administering the occupation to the full responsibility of Smotrich’s party through a ministerial position within the Defence ministry.  The two units – Civil Administration and Cogat (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) – govern all civil life in the West Bank’s Area C, the 60 percent fully administered by Israel. That includes the movement of people and goods between Gaza, Israel and the West Bank.

Granting the responsibility for these units to Smotrich not only allows him to expand settlements and enforce powers against Palestinians but also further restricts the movement of Gaza residents in and out of the enclave.

This newly appointed minister would play a central role in everything related to managing the life of Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank, including land planning and authorizing illegal outposts. In other words: de facto annexation of Area C with Jewish supremacist Smotrich as the sole ruler of the occupied territories.

Even those on the left who claim de facto annexation has already been implemented admit it spells a dramatic policy change and deepening apartheid. These are preliminary steps towards full annexation of the area. That has been tried before and failed under international pressure. Unlike the blunt force of previous annexation attempts, the new approach is tactical and marketed as administrative changes. De facto? It is much more.

These are the first steps of actual annexation. Udi Dekel, a former brigadier general, now deputy director of the Institute for National Security Studies think tank, defines this recent change as a switch from “creeping annexation” to “speedy annexation”.

Former senior officials in the Israeli Civil Administration say they expect Smotrich to annex the West Bank. One former official told Haartez: “With no doubt, Smotrich is to implement annexation.”

A threat to Israel too

Yehuda Etzion could not agree more or hope for more.

Etzion was once a member of the Jewish Underground terror group that participated in the plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock and is now a far-right activist and founder of a group dedicated to allowing Jewish prayer in Al-Aqsa Mosque, known as the Temple Mount by Jews.

He was personally involved in drawing up the “wish list” settler groups handed to Smotrich and Ben-Gvir as they were negotiating with Netanyahu. Speaking to Middle East Eye this week, he sounded hopeful about Ben-Gvir’s intentions regarding Al-Aqsa Mosque – such as opening it to Shabbat prayers and overturning the rule that only allows Jews to visit the site in arranged group visits.

“I don’t expect full-scale annexation since Bibi doesn’t really want it,” he told MEE, using a common nickname for Netanyahu.

“I do expect real changes in Area C, where previous Bibi governments allowed Palestinians to build and Jewish settlements could hardly grow,” he argued, despite tens of thousands of new settler homes being built in contravention of international law and Palestinian houses, schools, and hospitals being routinely demolished.

“As an accumulative process, it does mean annexation. Those two ministers, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, come to implement serious changes. The only question is: will Bibi allow them to do what he promised them in the agreements he signed? I know they tend to doubt it.”

In a paper published by the Institute for National Security Studies last week, Dekel refers to the possible repercussions of future annexation.

He said applying Israeli law in the West Bank and transferring power over it from the Defence ministry to a civilian one will draw international condemnation and scrutiny, and increase the characterization of Israel as an apartheid regime.

“Those claims will be anchored in the legal opinion of the International Court of Justice and will serve as an additional weapon in the international anti-Israel campaign,” he wrote.

Labor MP Nachman Shai, the outgoing minister of diaspora affairs, adds another perspective. “At this point, Jewish communities in America are concerned mainly with implications of the policy of the new government will have on them directly, like the pending changes in the law of return or newly nominated ministers referring to Reform Jews – the movement most American Jews belong to – as no Jews at all,” he told MEE.

That anger is currently passive, he said. But that could be translated into opposition more problematic for Israel: encouraging the US to no longer shield the country at the UN or even support sanctions over annexation.

“Under the new circumstances, I do not see them demonstrating in support of Israel or engaging their representatives in Congress or acting against the policy of their administration. They might never join BDS – but they will not fight it,” he said.

“It is a dangerous collision course. The only one to fully understand the implications is Bibi himself, but on the other hand, 2022 Bibi is not the Netanyahu we know. He is a changed person.”

So is Israel.

Lily Galili is a senior Israeli journalist and lecturer focusing on all aspects of Israeli society and immigration to Israel