On July 1, Israel could move to annex parts of the occupied West Bank under the terms of a coalition agreement signed in April. Palestinians, meanwhile, are left questioning their leadership and wondering how they became so far removed from their original goal of a Palestinian state.
As Israel slowly carved out parts of the West Bank over the years, its settlements swallowing hilltops and displacing Palestinians by destroying their homes, the Palestinian leadership cravenly chose its political dominance and economic interests over holding the occupier of its land accountable. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has often resorted to empty threats: this time, opting not to lodge a war crimes case at the International Criminal Court over whether Israel is breaking Articles 47 and 49 of the Geneva Conventions, citing the looming annexation and the country’s long-standing practice of transferring parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.
And as the Trump administration proved willing to change decades of U.S. policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has grown emboldened. First came the U.S. decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, then the recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. In January, Netanyahu renewed his vow to “impose Israeli sovereignty on the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea.”
After three deadlocked elections, the coalition agreement cobbled together between Netanyahu’s camp and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party allows Israel to formally annex some settlements in the West Bank and the strategic Jordan Valley—in what is known as Area C under the Oslo Accords. The plan could be brought before the cabinet for discussion as soon as July 1. This move is being taken in coordination with Washington. U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan, released in January, lays out a scenario in which Palestinians can enjoy limited self-rule—should they accept 70 percent of the West Bank and meet strict conditions—as Israel annexes the remaining 30 percent. Trump’s plan was summarily rejected by the Palestinian leadership, which rightly saw it as rigged in Israel’s favor.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, embraced the plan: He has indicated that he wants to gradually annex roughly half of Area C. But he has come up against internal pushback. Some retired Israeli security officials see this as a potential trigger for Palestinian violence and deteriorating relations with Jordan and other countries, while some settlers who are satisfied with the status quo do not wish to see a Palestinian state of any configuration.
Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi—also of Blue and White—are opposed to sweeping annexation and say it should be implemented in coordination with the affected parties: the Palestinians, as well as Jordan and Egypt. Gantz recently said that Israel won’t annex areas with large Palestinian populations, and in the annexed areas Palestinians will have full rights. This would likely mean issuing Israeli residency cards—but not citizenship—to a small number of Palestinians living directly adjacent to Israeli settlements that will be annexed, giving them a similar status to Palestinians living in East Jerusalem. Gantz also said that July 1 was not a “sacred date” and that Israelis had to address the coronavirus pandemic before moving forward—comments Netanyahu has dismissed.
There are also divisions within the Trump administration: U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman would like to see annexation move forward, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made it clear that what happens is up to Israel’s government. Some Pentagon officials would like to see the United States step back from supporting annexation, as it threatens regional stability. Outside the administration, support for annexation is weak: presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden opposes the move. Democratic support for Israel has waned as its base changes to include members of Congress with a more sympathetic streak for the Palestinian cause.
Trump could support annexation entirely or call for a gradual or a less comprehensive move. Either way, Netanyahu has a few options up his sleeve: He could decide to annex lands adjacent to settlements that are sparsely populated by Palestinians, to skirt the responsibility of giving the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in these areas legal residency or citizenship. He could also begin by annexing one or two large settlement blocs. Finally, he could do nothing—and create a committee to look into ways to begin the land grab.
For many Palestinians, annexation is not a new phenomenon: It has taken place informally in the West Bank for decades through settlement construction and other land expropriations. Since 1967, successive administrations in Washington have turned a blind eye to annexations in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, accepting them as the status quo over time. But the United States has always publicly maintained its opposition, keeping up the fiction of a two-state solution and asserting that Israel did not have the right to annex territory outside of international negotiations, for which the United States—seen by Palestinians as a dishonest broker—would always set the rules.
What is new is “that the Trump administration has gone beyond what any American administration has ever done,” said Rashid Khalidi, a professor at Columbia University. Until Trump entered into office, Israel was restrained in its efforts to absorb Palestinian territory. For the first time, “the Trump administration has openly endorsed the long-standing maximalist objective of the Zionist movement of taking over all of Palestine,” Khalidi said.
The Trump administration has also made clear that it endorses a subordinate existence for certain people under Israeli rule. Israel enshrined its Jewishness in law in 2018, formally downgrading the status of any non-Jewish citizen of Israel. Washington did not lift a finger, even as the law stated that the right to self-determination was “unique to the Jewish people”—language at odds with both countries’ democratic ideals.
The concept of a greater Israel—its borders as outlined in scripture—holds a powerful place in the Israeli religious and political lexicon. For decades, the state has implemented the concept and its accompanying settlement movement. But annexation will have important implications for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—which the international community has long claimed can only be attained through a two-state solution based on the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state.
Annexation will reveal that creating two states has long been a charade to cover up land expropriation and informal annexation that have created a one-state reality on the ground. Many observers say that annexation, which effectively institutionalizes a formal apartheid regime in which one ethnic group disenfranchises and rules over another, is a logical consequence of the 2018 nation-state law.
“The idea of separation now is not a separation of two entities on territorial grounds—it’s based on ethnic grounds,” said Raef Zreik, an associate professor of law at Ono Academic College and a co-director of the Minerva Center for the Humanities at Tel Aviv University. “The Israeli nation-state law … and the annexation (are) not two separate plans, but two plans that feed on the same rationale, (which) is that between the river and the sea, there are two groups of people and there is a superiority of the Jewish people over the Palestinian people.”
The two-state solution is now dead, but what emerges in the short term will be far uglier: one state that cements Jewish supremacy over Palestinians. It will not be the binational state that many Palestinians envisioned but instead a codified form of apartheid in which Palestinian life is increasingly constrained, defined by high-tech restrictions and surveillance, such as phone monitoring and biometric data collection.
The spatial limitations of a future Palestinian state are now well-defined: the disconnected enclaves within the West Bank and a hermetically isolated Gaza. Annexation is just the beginning of coming hardship for Palestinians—more laws will likely be codified, enshrining Israeli rights over Palestinian land and resources.
For example, Israeli annexation would have dire repercussions for Jericho—one of the first two cities to be granted limited Palestinian autonomy following the Oslo Accords, in 1994. Palestinians invested heavily in the ancient city, eyeing it as an economic hub for their future state. For a time, the agreement transformed it into the liveliest city in the West Bank. But the new annexation plans show the city surrounded by military outposts and settlements, completely isolated from other Palestinian cities.
“Jericho will (become an) enclave within this new Israeli sovereign space,” Zreik said. “So we are speaking about something that completely fragments the West Bank. This is a real blow to the continuity of the West Bank.”
Annexation may also be a death knell for the PA and spell an end to what remains of the Oslo Accords. It will likely lead to a crisis in Israel’s relations with neighboring Jordan and fan the flames of violence that have resurged every few years since the Second Intifada.
Many Palestinians are looking to Europe, the United Nations, and the Arab states for a reaction—seeking collective responsibility to stop Israel from taking this dangerous step. But they are also aware that their current leadership needs to play a prominent role. It has so far proved incapable, given internal divisions and a lackluster effort on the international stage that have stopped it from taking stronger measures against the planned annexation.
On May 19, President Mahmoud Abbas said the PA would no longer be bound by existing agreements with Israel. But similar proclamations have been made by the Palestinian leadership during tough times in the past, only to fall by the wayside in favor of the status quo. Threats by the PA over the years that it would stop Israeli security coordination or absolve itself from the Oslo Accords have never materialized. These episodes have contributed to Palestinians’ frustration: 63 percent now believe that a two-state solution is no longer practical or feasible, while 69 percent are opposed to a resumption of dialogue between the Palestinian leadership and the Trump administration.
“The Palestinian Authority has rightly abandoned the Trump administration but has not abandoned the United States. It should. The U.S. is not an honest broker,” said Noura Erakat, a human rights attorney and assistant professor at Rutgers University.
Likewise, Palestinians should not have high hopes for a possible Biden presidency. The campaign’s positions follow a long history of pro-Israel stances by Biden, a self-described Zionist. At best, Biden is expected to defend a defunct strategy—the two-state solution and its associated pacts long endorsed by the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party and its current leadership are as pro-Israel as the Republican Party. But now more than ever, the Democratic base is more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Palestinian civil society has made important inroads through Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign and a younger generation of organizers and elected officials. Palestinians need to take advantage of the slow but steady changes inside the Democratic Party, such as members of Congress endorsing boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. Such successes have made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a partisan issue.
If any Palestinian leadership decides it wants to negotiate—whether under a Trump or Biden administration—it cannot enter into the same peace process that has been rigged in Israel’s favor. In the absence of a leadership that the Palestinian people deserve, it’s incumbent upon Palestinian civil society to do some of the heavy lifting. Sooner or later there will be a fully fledged Palestinian leadership that can step into the breach.
In the meantime, annexation will likely go forward, save some procedural delay or political jockeying from within Israel. This will start the process of forming a single binational state—but it will be a far cry from the democratic state for all citizens won through nonviolent sit-ins and marches envisioned by Palestinian activists.
Subjugation and the eventual refusal to be vanquished in one’s homeland will likely be a long, drawn-out, terrifying battle of attrition.