Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (May 11, 2020) – Who wants annexation?


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. US Secretary of State Pompeo visits Israel this Wednesday May 13, presumably to discuss West Bank annexation. The next day the Knesset votes to approve the Netanyahu-Gantz “emergency corona unity” government coalition. Who’s against?

A. In addition to the political left (Joint Arab List, Meretz) and center (Yesh Atid), two right-wing pro-settler parties, Yamina led by Naftali Bennet and Yisrael Beitenu led by Avigdor Liberman (six and seven mandates, respectively) will apparently not join the coalition. While Liberman’s enmity toward Netanyahu is a given, Bennet’s is not. Because the coalition is so big, the share of the spoils, i.e., ministries, offered by Netanyahu to Bennet is apparently understood by Yamina, which in recent months has held four ministries in the transition government, as a slight.

This raises an interesting question, however. With Netanyahu ostensibly set to launch procedures on July 1 to annex up to 30 percent of the West Bank, don’t Bennet and his settler followers want to take partial credit for this historic move? Are Bennet, and perhaps Liberman, himself a settler, skeptical that any serious annexation will take place? Is Bennet, inexplicably, so certain the Trump plan will lead beyond annexation to the emergence of a Palestinian state in expanded areas A and B (around 70 percent of the West Bank) that as a close ally of the settlers he opposes the annexation?

Q. Why be skeptical? Why would someone on the right oppose this coalition and annexation?

A. We don’t know what message Pompeo is bringing Netanyahu and his centrist coalition partners about annexation. As US elections loom in the shadow of the corona pandemic and economic hardship, does the Trump political camp view annexation by Israel and the anticipated angry Arab and European reaction against both the US and Israel as electoral assets or as liabilities?

One possible hint came last week from US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. In a May 6 interview with the pro-Netanyahu Yisrael HaYom, Friedman laid out a few preconditions for annexation by Israel. First, the process of mapping the areas to be annexed has to be completed; no timetable was mentioned but this presumably will not take long. Then Israel has to declare suspension of settlement construction and expansion in areas not to be annexed, i.e., the 70 percent of the West Bank that the Trump plan designates for a Palestinian state. Then Netanyahu has to offer to open negotiations “in good faith” with the Palestinians regarding the Trump peace plan.

But then, whether the PLO agrees or refuses to negotiate, Netanyahu can proceed with annexation. Under the Trump plan, four years are allotted for negotiations. If agreement is reached and, says Friedman, “Palestinians become Canadians”, a Palestinian state can emerge in the amoebic mass of enclaves the plan leaves them. Friedman reiterates Pompeo’s earlier assertion that “It’s Israel’s decision. They have to decide what to do.” He does not mention the public blessing for annexation that Netanyahu has indicated he needs from President Trump, which thus far has not been forthcoming.

Friedman pointedly rejects the notion that this plan will eventually turn West Bank Palestinians into Israelis and turn Israel into an apartheid state: “. . . there is no way in the modern world that a country, especially a country as great as Israel, could possibly have a country with two classes of citizens, where one votes and the other doesn't. It can't be done.”

Q. What has he been smoking? Look at the map he’s proposing.

A. This entire plan reflects the views of certain Orthodox American and Israeli Jews and Christian Evangelicals for whom the Jewish religious/territorial nature of Israel overrides democracy and basic human and civil rights for Palestinians. Zionism is religion and land!

Trump’s Evangelical supporters of course have their own Christian messianic rationale for the plan: Israel takes all the land, the messiah returns and we all become Christians. So much for faith-based annexation.

As for Friedman, Kushner and company, egged on by Netanyahu and his right-religious supporters, they simply close their eyes to the consequences. They are either ignorant, imperialistic, or both. They claim that Israel will gobble up West Bank territory and remain democratic. They ignore that Palestinians will remain under a de facto apartheid regime. Even if Palestinians “become Canadians” (it used to be “Finns” or “Norwegians”, but Friedman prefers North America to Scandinavia as the ideal model that Palestinians must aspire to) they will still be living in a Bantustan. And the 30 percent that Israel grabs is not up for negotiation, so why would the Palestinians negotiate?

Q. What’s to stop the Palestinians from declaring independence in the 70 percent of West Bank enclaves allotted to them, then refusing to negotiate?

A. An interesting question. They presumably will not do so in order not to legitimize the Trump plan and not to imply that they concede 30 percent of the West Bank along with East Jerusalem. But if they did, the entire world other than the US and Israel would recognize their independence. A new and very tense situation would arise in the West Bank, in Israel-Arab relations and in Israel’s international standing.

Q. The tense situation will in any case emerge after unilateral annexation by Israel . . .

A. Yes, and this is where we encounter some truly intriguing reactions from both the right and left. Here, for example, is Daniel Pipes, president of the hawkish Middle East Forum, who believes that Palestinians must first be defeated and occupied like Germany in 1945 before, magically, a two-state solution will be possible. Now Pipes cautions in the New York Times that annexation is no more than a “symbolic move” that “would probably damage Israel’s relations with the Trump administration, the Democrats, Europeans and Arab leaders, as well as destabilize the region, radicalize the Israeli Left, and harm the Zionist goal of a Jewish state”.

Bravo! It’s not clear why Pipes thinks Trump will “erupt in fury” just because there are no serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations prior to annexation, but in all other respects he is spot-on regarding the likely reaction. Sadly, Pipes doesn’t mention the damage to Israel as a democratic state. Perhaps he, like Friedman, adheres to the Sheldon Adelson school: “I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy. . . . if Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state--so what?”

Then there is Gideon Levy of Haaretz, a post-Zionist democrat who has long argued that the two-state solution is dead, apartheid is the current reality, and the future lies in a bi-national Jewish-Arab state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. He and Pipes are at opposite ends of the spectrum. “Annexation,” Levy states, “will put an end to the lies and require everyone to look the future in the eye . . . . The occupation is here to stay. . . . Annexation will challenge deniers of reality as they have never been challenged. That is why we need to support it despite the injustice and disasters it is liable to inflict. In the long term their cost will be lower than the price of the status quo.”

In a more sardonic vein, Yehuda Nuriel writes in a Yediot Aharonot opinion piece entitled “Annexation now,” with “now” (achshav) in a typeface that plays on the Peace Now logo: “Annexation now in order to finally determine the state of Israel’s external borders. . . . A state without external borders ends up losing its internal borders. And how much have we lost! The occupation indeed corrupts everything. . . . A miserable army that must carry out violent repression and police actions. . . . Terror inflicted on academia, culture and the media; a terrible internal schism; masses of Israelis detesting the knitted kipa-wearers [settlers] because they are cheating the state . . . . and we almost forgot: grinding the Palestinian people into the dirt. . . .”

Q. Incidentally, does Pompeo’s Israel agenda include anything else besides annexation?

A. Presumably, two other issues of such great importance that they are worthy of mention here despite the totally unrelated context of annexation. One is Iran. Netanyahu openly backs Trump’s thus-far counter-productive boycott measures. But Netanyahu can point to very tentative indications that the Iranian military effort in Syria is faltering under stepped-up Israeli attacks and due to Iranian disarray after the US assassination of Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani.

A second issue is China. US-Chinese tensions are escalating even as Israel has been welcoming Chinese investment in huge Israeli strategic infrastructure projects like ports, the Tel Aviv metro and a desalination plant. Not only the Trump administration but the Pentagon as well are cautioning Israel menacingly to downgrade the Chinese role.

Q. Is there an integrated bottom line here?

A. First, the American and Israeli takes on annexation cited above, including right-religious fears of a Palestinian state, offer food for thought.

Second, Pompeo’s visit presumably signals the need for close US-Israeli coordination on three major strategic issues. Regarding annexation, the next Netanyahu government will almost certainly follow Pompeo’s instructions, whatever they are: go fast, go slow, wait, suffice with symbolic annexation. We can only hope Trump is having second thoughts due to Arab protests and even election considerations, and/or that Benny Gantz and Gaby Ashkenazi, as Blue White’s senior ministers in the emerging coalition, will have a moderating effect on the entire project.

Regarding Iran, Netanyahu and Trump will continue to coordinate closely. This bespeaks both good news and bad news. The good news is probably that Israel can press forward on the ground against Iran in Syria, without US involvement, as long as it succeeds in coordinating with Russia. Here, incidentally, there are encouraging indications of growing Russian-Iranian tensions regarding Syria. The bad news is that Trump’s policies, egged on by Netanyahu, are pushing Iran to consider extreme measures, particularly in the nuclear field.

As for China, here there is potential for genuine US-Israeli disagreement. The US is cautioning Israel that China will exploit its investments in Israel to siphon off strategic know-how and compromise Israeli capabilities in wartime. But Trump is also targeting China over the corona virus in order to deflect criticism of his own ignorant and very costly corona mistakes as US elections near. The Israeli strategic and financial community is by and large pleased with Beijing’s investments, not concerned that security will be compromised, and does not want to get dragged into US elections.

Notably, Pompeo will meet with Gantz and Ashkenazi in addition to Netanyahu. The timing of his visit signals that a lot of key dynamics are coming together after months of Israeli governmental paralysis and the global corona-related shutdown.

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