Why Jewish settlers don’t want annexation – yet

Merav Amir

+972 Magazine  /  January 26, 2023

Jewish settler leaders panicked when Israel was on the cusp of annexing the West Bank. The government’s legal reforms now intend to put their concerns to rest.

For a brief moment in 2020, it seemed as if the settler right was on the cusp of achieving its ultimate goal: annexing large parts of the occupied West Bank. This was during the days of the Trump administration, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that the White House had given him the green light on formal annexation. In retrospect, that moment turned out to be both fleeting and fictitious: then-President Donald Trump quickly announced in response that he would not back annexation, while making clear exactly what he thought of Netanyahu.

But Netanyahu did not just misread Trump. He also made a major and unexpected miscalculation: Israeli settler leaders, the core of his electoral base, came out firmly against the proposed annexation plan. The drama that broke out among the right was on full display, and Netanyahu was woefully unprepared.

Yet while settler leaders did not hold back when speaking to the media, the explanations they gave for their surprising opposition were far from convincing. Annexation has long been the stated goal of the settler movement; it was one of the principles that motivated the founding of Gush Emunim, the religious settler group formed in the mid-1970s. The 2005 Gaza disengagement, and the evacuation of the Gush Katif settlements in the strip, injected a new sense of urgency into the movement, teaching settlers that so long as occupied territory is not formally annexed, they lack the legal tools to oppose government decisions to evacuate settlements.

Thus, since the early 2010s, campaigns promoting annexation have been at the forefront of the movement’s agenda. Organizations promoting this cause engage in a variety of strategies: they publish a stream of articles on the topic, organize conferences, and run public campaigns. They have many allies in the Knesset, some of whom are advancing legislation for both de facto and de jure forms of annexation. And while the entirety of the West Bank remains the ultimate ambition, partial annexation plans — whether of the major settlements blocs or all of Area C — are regarded as intermediate steps that would, at the very least, remove the threat of settlement evacuation.

Settler leaders’ objections to Netanyahu’s 2020 plans were, therefore, rather startling. The leaders explained that their opposition was rooted in the details of the proposal; they claimed that the Trump-Netanyahu plan paved the way for a Palestinian state, and entailed fully conceding Areas A and B of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority while “abandoning” isolated settlements. Some also claimed that partial annexation in and of itself was wrong, because it might undermine the possibility of one day annexing the entire West Bank.

Given that these explanations appeared in the mainstream media, as well as in right-wing outlets and forums promoting annexation, we should not assume that these statements were attempts to hide the speakers’ true motivations. At the same time, it’s not hard to surmise that these claims were hiding something.

It was obvious from the start that the Trump-Netanyahu plan would not lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state and did not in fact constitute a territorial “concession” by Israel. Moreover, as the settler movement knows from prior experience, any such “concessions” in fact offer a springboard for Israel to take control of even more territory. For a movement that prides itself on having perfected the “salami method” — a piecemeal strategy that disguises the movement’s cumulative effect — partial annexation will not, on its own, thwart full annexation.

So what led the settler leaders to speak out against it? The answers require paying careful attention to what the settlers mean when they talk about “sovereignty” in the context of annexation. Most commonly, “sovereignty” implies the application of Israeli law in the occupied territory, fully and formally, to make it part of the State of Israel. But, as the scholar Ian Lustick has shown, this is not what settlers mean when they talk about “applying sovereignty.”

For example, in an interview for the political journal “Sovereignty,” Shlomo Ne’eman, who last September was elected as chairman of the Yesha Council — the umbrella organization of the West Bank settlement movement — explains the difference between what he calls “sovereignty from above” and “sovereignty from the ground” by contrasting different areas under Israeli rule. “In the Golan Heights, for example, there is sovereignty, but where are the Jews? In [East] Jerusalem there is sovereignty, but in Shuafat and in the neighborhoods in the east of the city, you don’t feel sovereignty.” By comparison, he claims that “when you walk around in Ma’ale Adumim, in Ariel, in a large part of Gush Etzion, in Beitar Illit — there you see sovereignty.”

What is this “sovereignty” that Ne’eman does not feel in the Golan or East Jerusalem? He is not talking about the absence of law enforcement, or a vacuum of governance. What disturbs him is the relative absence of Jews in the former area, and the presence of Palestinians in the latter. It is not legal or civil sovereignty that Ne’eman wants to apply to the West Bank: sovereignty is, for him, a national concept. This is not the sovereignty of the State of Israel, but the sovereignty of the people of Israel.

In other words, Ne’eman’s conception of sovereignty is one of Jewish supremacy. As such, he sees “sovereignty from the ground” in the settlements because they are built on Jewish exclusivity — even if they are not formally part of Israel’s sovereign territory.

This still does not explain why Netanyahu’s annexation plan bothered the leaders of the settler movement so much. We could assume, as Ne’eman’s words imply, that formal sovereignty would be a mere stepping stone on the way to the ultimate “sovereignty on the ground” he desires. As he himself has said, “We must understand that applying sovereignty is only the beginning of our work.”

However, these two meanings of sovereignty are not just different; they are, in fact, opposites. Though they do not contradict one another in theory, it is clear from their practice that these two versions cannot coexist. The reason is simple: most of the ways in which Jewish supremacy is implemented in the West Bank will not stand the test of Israeli law.

The State of Israel grants privileges to its Jewish citizens in a variety of areas, including housing and land rights, protections for freedom of expression and association, and the right of citizenship. And yet, Israeli law still maintains a few elements — some would say remnants — of liberal democracy for all its citizens. So even though Palestinians within the Green Line are treated as second-class citizens, and despite the systematic trampling of their collective rights and their national identity, parts of Israeli law still protect Palestinian citizens from certain types of discrimination.

When areas of the West Bank are formally annexed, they will be subjected to Israeli law, thereby exposing the Jewish supremacy that currently reigns there to legal contestation. Annexed settlements will, for example, struggle to preserve their character as purely Jewish spaces — such as when Palestinian residents move into Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, like French Hill and Pisgat Ze’ev.

Annexation will also subject parts of the West Bank to zoning plans and construction regulations. Such regulations will sharply limit the current system of wild land grabbing, including building unregulated and unpermitted outposts as well as major settlement extensions. Above all, the formal application of the rule of law will threaten the clearest expression of Jewish supremacy in the West Bank: the armed settler militias that terrorize Palestinian farmers and residents of rural regions.

We can see, therefore, that settler opposition to Netanyahu’s plan is not rooted in disagreements over the details. The moment formal annexation became a real possibility that could be implemented at any second, settler leaders panicked and did everything in their power to thwart it. When push came to shove, it became obvious that they are, at least at present, against their own supposed flagship agenda.

None of this is to say that the settler leadership does not ultimately seek formal annexation, which would protect the settlements from future evacuations. But they still have much to do to ensure that annexation will not compromise the type of Jewish supremacy established in Area C.

This is what Israel’s current far-right government has taken upon itself to carry out. The legislative changes and the judicial reforms that the coalition has been eagerly pursuing since its inauguration last month are intended to resolve, once and for all, the bind that annexation poses for them. In other words, the ambition of Netanyahu’s coalition partners is to fundamentally reshape Israeli law and its judicial system to reflect settler logic — servicing unrestrained Jewish supremacy. Their true ambition of “applying sovereignty” is not to annex the settlements into the State of Israel, but to annex the rest of Israel into the settlements.

Merav Amir is a Senior Lecture of Human Geography at Queen’s University Belfast