‘I BELIEVE that this would be a historic mistake.” So wrote former Israeli Foreign minister Tzipi Livni last week in an opinion piece in the Washington Post. She was of course talking about the prospective moves by the current Israeli government to begin unilaterally annexing territories in the West Bank, moves that could begin as early as this Wednesday.
Livni’s misgivings would appear to be shared by many. In a joint letter published last Wednesday, 1080 parliamentarians from 25 European countries expressed their “serious concern” about the plan. More than 240 of the signatories are legislators in Britain, according to the BBC, who on its website said the Israeli embassy in London had declined to comment.
“We are deeply worried about the precedent this would set for international relations at large,” the letter stated, adding that “acquisition of territory by force has no place in 2020”, while warning of the “commensurate consequences” such a move could spark.
The letter, part of a wider global expression of concern, was initiated by four other prominent Israeli figures, including Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Knesset, and Michael Ben-Yair, a former attorney general of Israel.
Adding to the international appeal for Israel to think again about the plans, the United Nations secretary general, Antonio Guterres reiterated the UN’s own message “that annexation would be not only against international law but it would be a major factor to destabilise the region”.
Speaking ahead of a high-level UN security council meeting on Wednesday on the Middle East, Guterres said annexation “would undermine what I believe is necessary, which is a two-state solution in which Israelis and the Palestinians can live together in peace, respect each other, and guarantee each other’s security”.
“I hope that this voice of reason that is not only mine, it is echoing across the world, will be heard by the Israeli authorities and that annexation does not take place on July 1,” the secretary general added.
For their part, Palestinian officials have threatened to abolish bilateral agreements with Israel if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu goes ahead with the annexation.
Senior Palestinian Authority (PA) official Hussein al-Sheikh told The New York Times that the PA was “not a charity” and would not stand idly by while Israel undermined its authority in the West Bank.
His comments chimed with those of PA leader President Mahmoud Abbas, who in a speech before the Arab Parliament, the legislative body of the Arab League, said that if Israel went forward it would be forced to carry “the responsibilities of an occupier on the civilian population”.
“Such an illegitimate measure will oblige Israel to assume the responsibilities of occupying power in accordance with the Fourth Geneva Convention,” said Abbas.
The wording of the convention that Abbas referenced is very clear, stating its objective to protect any person “who, at a given moment and in any manner whatsoever, finds themselves, in case of a conflict or occupation, in the hands of a party to the conflict or occupying power of which they are not nationals”.
In this case that occupying power would of course be Israel. Other Palestinian officials were quick also to stress how the annexation moves could cause an uptick in violence.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, an aide to President Abbas, warned of the dangers of retaliation for such a move, saying “there will be no security and stability without giving the Palestinian people their rights”.
Perhaps more predictably, the armed wing of the Gaza Strip’s ruling Hamas group said annexation would be considered “a declaration of war on our people”.
“We will make the enemy bite at its fingers with regret for this decision,” a Hamas spokesman said in a video message.
It was following a power-sharing deal that led to the formation of the current Israeli government last month that allowed annexation to be put to a vote from July 1.
In seeking to extend Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank containing Jewish settlements, Netanyahu earlierwon the backing of US President Donald Trump’s administration in January.
Trump’s version of his so-called Peace to Prosperity plan, allows Israel to keep up to 30% of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, as well as all existing Jewish settlements, which most of the world considers illegal.
Flying in the face of previous US foreign policy, Trump has also slashed aid to Palestinians, severed diplomatic ties and declared all of the city of Jerusalem Israel’s capital, despite Palestinian claims over part of the city.
Netanyahu’s annexation plans have also been given added urgency because of the impending US presidential election in November. Trump’s potential departure from the White House could scupper what Netanyahu and his supporters see as a “historic opportunity” to extend Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, even if widely deplored as a violation of an international treaty forbidding annexation of occupied land.
With the clock ticking down to a US election, Netanyahu might be encouraged to move quickly this week given that Trump is the only US president to have endorsed annexation and there are no guarantees Joe Biden would do the same were he to replace the incumbent US leader in November’s presidential ballot.
Today more than 400,000 Jewish settlers live inside the West Bank, while another 230,000 others live in East Jerusalem. Alongside them are some three million Palestinians who see the West Bank as the heart of their future state.
Israel has already annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, two other territories captured in 1967.
Last month Jordan’s King Abdullah warned that if Israel annexed parts of the West Bank it would lead to a major clash with the kingdom.
Along with Egypt, Jordan is the only Arab nation to have signed a peace treaty with Israel. But opinion polls in the kingdom have consistently shown that Jordanians overwhelmingly oppose the 1994 treaty that was signed one year after the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians.
Jordan would be “forced to review all aspects of our relations with Israel”, Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz told French news agency AFP recently. The report also cited ordinary Jordanians as saying that Israel’s proposed move poses an “existential threat” for a country where more than half of the 10 million population are of Palestinian origin.
As tension with Jordan grows, Israeli media reported that Yossi Cohen, chief of Israel’s external security service Mossad, visited Jordan and met with King Abdullah.
For some time there have been suggestions that there are those within the Israeli political and military hierarchy who have been uneasy about taking unilateral steps on annexation that could influence the future of ties with Amman.
Reports suggest that Cohen was apparently sent to Jordan directly by Netanyahu (below) and while few details have emerged, the aim of the visit, say some observers, was likely an attempt to reassure the Jordanian monarch.
Such uneasiness is not confined to Israel’s neighbours, with reports in The Times of Israel that the country’s own security chiefs appear to be at loggerheads over the potential fallout from the annexation moves.
According to Israel’s Channel 12 news last Thursday and cited by The Times of Israel, the heads of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), Shin Bet (internal security) and Mossad (external intelligence) took part in a meeting of the high-level security cabinet last week during which ministers had distinctly differing views on the possible ramifications of West Bank annexation.
Quoting unnamed ministers present at the meeting, the network said IDF chief of staff Aviv Kochavi and military intelligence commander Tamir Hayman warned annexation could spark violent unrest in the West Bank, including shooting attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers.
THE military chiefs and their Mossad counterparts were also said to be “at odds” on whether the move will be met with significant Palestinian violence or not. Yossi Cohen was said to be dismissive of IDF concerns and predictions of a violent response by Palestinians.
“I don’t accept the claim that annexation will necessary lead to violent responses,” Cohen was quoted as saying in the meeting.
According to Channel 12, two ministers were also reported as admitting that they had not seen such a sharp disagreement between the security services for some time.
“There seems to be no homogeneity in thinking, intelligence or insights,”
Channel 12 cited them as saying.
Some observers suggest that such differences of opinion at both a military and diplomatic level appear to be compounded by the continuing uncertainty over precisely what Netanyahu’s next move might entail next week or beyond.
For the Israeli leader, a clear green light from Washington is a prerequisite for the start of any annexation process and the signs are that the White House remains cautious. “There is as yet no final decision on the next steps for implementing the Trump plan,” one of the US officials told Reuters news agency on Thursday, referring to the president’s Israeli-Palestinian blueprint that could provide a basis for Netanyahu’s next move.
Among the main options under US consideration is a gradual process in which Israel would initially declare sovereignty over several settlements close to Jerusalem instead of the 30% of the West Bank envisaged in Netanyahu’s original plan, a source close to the matter is said to have told Reuters.
The uncertainty has left many senior Israeli diplomats in something of a quandary.
A few days ago Bloomberg international news agency, citing an Israeli foreign ministry official who asked for anonymity in discussing internal affairs, described how it had “put the nation’s representatives in the uncomfortable position of having to fend off allies peppering them with requests for information”.
A ministry spokeswoman declined to comment on the remarks, the Bloomberg agency also confirmed.
As this weekend’s edition of The Economist observed, for the moment July 1 is less a deadline than a starting point over annexation.
The Israeli leader continues to play his cards close to his chest. The magazine also reported that on June 3 Israeli security officials held a war game manoeuvres in preparation for possible violence, but remained unclear about their own government’s intentions.
“Annexation? What annexation?” the magazine quoted an Israeli diplomat as asking.
Even with just days to go, Netanyahu’s government still hasn’t spelled out in public or apparently in private what it intends to do.
On the one hand Netanyahu could decide to annex large swathes of territory or annex nothing at all. Then again, as many observers now believe, he will most likely do something in between.
“We’re sort of haphazardly leaping into this,” said Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser and member of the Commanders for Israel’s Security group, which opposes the move.
“This isn’t the way you go about one of the most important and consequential decisions in Israel’s history,” Freilich told Bloomberg in an interview, as the clock continues to tick down towards July 1.
There remains, of course, the unlikely possibility that Netanyahu might reconsider his annexation plans.
This would not only go down badly with his supporters but also do little to change the reality on the ground for Israelis and Palestinians alike, say Middle East watchers.
Be it European parliamentarians, diplomats, those Democrats in America who oppose annexation or ordinary Israelis and Palestinian alike, there is much apprehension over how events will unfold in the coming days and weeks.
“Israel is about to make one of the most fateful decisions in its modern history – a decision that will have a profound impact on its future as a Jewish democratic state and on the prospect for peace,” observed Livni in her Washington Post opinion piece last week, underlining the seriousness of what is at stake.
Palestinians likewise are under no illusions over what it means for their community. All eyes are on what Benjamin Netanyahu does or doesn’t do next.