Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (June 8, 2020) - Annexation: the security aspect


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. How can we look at the security dimension of Netanyahu’s annexation plans when we do not yet know what he proposes to annex?

A. Creating a kind of “fog of war” around his annexation intentions appears to be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tactic for keeping opponents of annexation off guard until he is ready to spring and immediately execute his plan. As matters stood on Monday of this week, Netanyahu’s political opponents, including those from Blue White who are senior ministers in his government, were hard put to define what specific annexations they are against.

Only the settlers seem to know what they oppose. A major faction of hard-core settlers is against any annexation of West Bank land because they believe it could, under the Trump ‘deal of the century’, trigger the ultimate emergence of a Palestinian state in the remaining 70 percent of the territory. Netanyahu replies that annexation does not depend on the Trump plan and that whatever emerges on the Palestinian side will not be a state, with Israel controlling security everywhere west of the Jordan River.

To an uninvolved observer, this entire settler-Netanyahu debate is ridiculous. The Palestinians have no intention of getting involved in the Trump-Kushner version of a state. They turned down far better offers in the past from Israeli leaders Barak and Olmert. And the settlers, by the way, use the term “sovereignty plan” rather than annexation and complain that the Trump-Netanyahu map ignores some 25 “outposts” that are illegal even by Israel’s convoluted legal standards regarding West Bank settlement--all indications that they are used to getting their way with Netanyahu.

Interestingly, it is the settler protest against annexation that is finally sparking a major public debate in Israel about the issue, as Netanyahu’s July 1 deadline approaches. Some settler leaders even allege that US President Trump’s ‘deal’ proves he is no friend of Israel; they are campaigning against the plan among US Evangelicals, where as fellow messianic believers they are influential when it comes to the Holy Land.

Defense Minister Gantz and Foreign Minister Ashkenazi of Blue White are widely believed to favor coordinating with Jordan at most a symbolic annexation such as the Etzion Bloc between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Yet they are silently uncritical of Netanyahu--a troubling sign for those who oppose Jordan Valley annexation. They are known to be in touch with the Trump administration, as are Netanyahu’s annexation team members, but no one seems to know what any of these actors is talking about in Washington.

Meanwhile the European Union, Israel’s biggest trading partner and funder of much of its hi-tech research and development, is vaguely threatening sanctions. But it is still preoccupied with covid-19, and some of its members, like Hungary, intend to support annexation by Netanyahu. The Arab world, too, is threatening. But only Jordan is articulating a specific threat of suspending its peace treaty and strategic cooperation with Israel, and only with regard to Jordan Valley annexation.

Then there is the Palestinian Authority, which has cut overt security ties with Israel (but not covert ties, which are vital for its own security), rejects any discussion at all of the Trump plan, and threatens recourse to institutions of international law like the International Criminal Court. The PA just rejected Israel’s routine monthly transfer of VAT and customs funds--almost a Samson-like gesture of ‘Let my soul die with the Philistines’.

Q. So, the positions and actions of all these actors that oppose annexation are hard to analyze and predict. . .

A. Correct. We don’t know if Netanyahu will opt to apply Israeli law to everything offered by Trump--the Jordan Valley, the green line blocs like Etzion, the 18 isolated settlements that will find themselves surrounded by the PA’s 70 percent of the West Bank--or to only some of these areas and settlements. At the political level, it is not clear how the many additional involved actors intend to act and react.

Q. But on security . . .

A. On security ramifications of annexation we can be relatively substantive and dispel the fog Netanyahu is creating. As the Israeli debate over annexation warms up, a number of retired generals have articulated the security threat. It is clear they are speaking for much of the serving security community, which is duty-bound not to go public with its objections. Here are two examples.

Retired Major General Amos Yadlin, former head of IDF Intelligence and now head of the INSS think tank at Tel Aviv University, notes that any annexation will be detrimental at the global level to Israel’s struggle against Iran because it will undermine what is otherwise a viable Israeli security case that is broadly supported by the West. If we annex 30 percent of the West Bank, Yadlin states, we have effectively annexed 100 percent and ceased to be both Jewish and democratic; what is left for the Palestinians in the West Bank can never function as a state. “This is an unwanted anti-Zionist act even if the Palestinians don’t burn down US embassies,” he adds laconically.

In any case, Yadlin reminds us, Israel currently controls the Jordan Valley under a fairly stable status quo arrangement vis-à-vis the PA and Jordan. It does so with recourse to minimal military force. Why forego these advantages by annexing?

The Trump annexation will generate multiple new borders some 1,800 km. long where the IDF will have to guard against hostile West Bank Palestinians. Further, turning both Jordan and the PA into angry neighbors to the east and west of the Jordan Valley will force the IDF to divert forces to this arena at the expense of the ‘campaign between wars’ against Iran/Hezbollah/Syria to Israel’s north. And it is Iran, not the Israeli-Palestinian sphere, that should be the focus of the Israel-US strategic dialogue.

As for the Etzion Bloc and other settlement blocs near the green line, endless negotiations with the Palestinians have determined that they will become part of sovereign Israel in any agreed two-state solution. But even minor unilateral annexation, Yadlin warns, should at least be preceded by another attempt to negotiate with the Ramallah-based PLO.

Retired Major General Amos Gilad, now also a think-tank head at the Multidisciplinary Center in Herzlia, was for years coordinator of strategic-political affairs for the Defense Ministry, where he cultivated close ties with neighboring Arab leaders. Like Yadlin, Gilad focuses on the Jordan Valley and the ramifications of annexation for Jordan where, he reminds us, “a strong anti-Israel sentiment in any event exists among the public.”

Jordan, notes Gilad, is an “ally of Israel that has turned the entire region as far as Iraq into a deep strategic security zone” free of military or terrorist threats. Jordan Valley annexation will undermine the Hashemite regime and invite Iranian/Hezbollah penetration. In parallel, annexation will destroy “the last vestige of hope for a two-state agreement” in the PA, which could disintegrate, inviting Hamas to take over.

Jordan desperately needs to be able to point to the possibility of a Palestinian state emerging in the West Bank, with a common Jordan Valley border, if it is to remain Hashemite, share security concerns with Israel, and control and absorb its own large Palestinian population.

Q. Yet beyond the PA and Jordan, the rest of the Arab world is barely threatening a response to annexation. . .

A. Most of the Arab world appears to have given up on a two-state solution. Besides, it needs Israel strategically against Iran. But even assuming it sits back and does nothing about Israeli annexation, the consequences sketched out by Yadlin and Gilad closer to home--Jordan, the PA, the threat to Israel’s north--loom as major security threats. And for what? So Netanyahu, a leader laboring under triple indictment on corruption charges, can leave behind a disastrous “legacy” after 14 years in office, one that even some settler leaders reject in favor of the status quo.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is already disowning the PLO’s Oslo-based obligations toward Israel. The Fateh movement he heads is already threatening “self-sacrifice” and “explosion”, two terms that, taken together, read: suicide bombings.

And note, by the way, that Jordan merely has to freeze its relations with Israel, not cancel them, to cause security chaos. It can even leave in place its contract to buy cheap gas from Israel (via an American commercial go-between), and still receive US security aid. Look for the chaos on the Temple Mount, where Jordan is the legal caretaker, and at the Allenby Bridge which is the PA’s link to the Arab world. Look for it in a freeze on Jordanian strategic security coordination with Israel that compromises Israeli strategic depth and invites terrorist infiltration after decades of Jordan Valley tranquility.

Q. You mentioned gradations of annexation that fall short of the Jordan Valley. . .

A. This is where Benny Gantz becomes a key figure, and potentially a tragic one. Remember, he wears two hats in this government.

As minister of defense, Gantz felt obliged about ten days ago to order the IDF to prepare militarily for an angry Palestinian and possible Jordanian response to annexation. Here a lot depends on what is annexed.

Unilaterally attaching the Etzion Bloc to Israel in coordination with Jordan would presumably produce new tensions with the PA and possibly Palestinian demonstrations. But little more. Escalation of annexation to include more blocs, or isolated settlements, or the Jordan Valley, requires a lot more planning by the IDF for major prolonged clashes.

For example, in a worst-case scenario the IDF might confront the entire PA security establishment, some 65,000 armed and uniformed Palestinians, reinforced by 10,000 Fateh Tanzim irregulars. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is not a supporter of the use of force, might not send them into battle. But it would be sufficient for the PA to collapse or weaken radically under an extended Palestinian anti-annexation protest for these armed forces, which constitute 40 percent of the PA payroll, to take matters into their own hands.

Here we encounter perhaps the ultimate paradox of the West Bank settlers’ reaction to Netanyahu’s annexation plans. The more messianic among them fear the emergence of a Palestinian state on land they covet. Yet the far more likely outcome would be a new Intifada in which tens of thousands of armed Palestinians attack the more isolated and messianic settlements and outposts, with the IDF caught in the middle.

Still, with barely three weeks remaining to Netanyahu’s July 1 deadline, there are multiple indications that Gantz as alternate prime minister still does not know what sort of annexation Netanyahu will decide upon. That means the IDF does not know either. Gantz is reportedly in close contact with multiple Trump administration officials in an effort, carried out behind Netanyahu’s back, to find out and to exercise moderating influence over the end product.

Q. So is Washington the real arena where the fate of annexation will be decided?

A. If Netanyahu persists in ignoring threats from Jordan and the PA and warnings from Gantz, the IDF and Europe, perhaps the threats and warnings from all these actors will have more effect in Washington. There, President Trump is quite noticeably preoccupied with a raging pandemic, rage on the streets over racial issues, and sinking chances of reelection. Joe Biden and the Democrats have made clear their opposition to Netanyahu’s annexation plans.

A panicked Netanyahu still insists on a July deadline precisely because he fears America’s November elections will somehow conspire to veto his annexation project. Netanyahu is already threatening to move ahead with annexation even without Trump’s blessings, precisely because Trump has given no public blessing.

Here two additional strategic issues are relevant. First, the annexation issue, uniquely, is generating extensive and unprecedented interaction between American and Israeli politics. It’s all connected: from settlers lobbying Evangelicals to lobby Trump against annexation, to Democrats threatening punitive action, all the way to mysterious Israeli-American mapping teams preparing annexation under Jared Kushner’s supervision.

Second, Israeli basic laws allow for a situation where a simple Knesset majority can decide on annexation. Yet a simple Knesset majority cannot undo the application of Israeli law in the West Bank. Cancelling annexation, under an Israeli basic law passed some years ago by the right-religious mainstream, would require either a weighted 80-MK majority or a majority in a referendum. And Israel has never held a referendum. These complications, as Netanyahu well knows, merely underline the likely finality for the entire Middle East of whatever annexation does take place.

Q. Bottom line?

A. There is simply no alternative to Jordan as Israel’s strategic depth east of the Jordan River. And there is no alternative to the Abbas-led PLO and PA as Israel’s security partners west of the river. Netanyahu is jeopardizing all these strategic assets. Not to mention Israel’s international strategic, diplomatic and legal standing and its financial well-being in the face of possible sanctions.

There is no viable “state” for the Palestinians anywhere in the Trump plan, not to mention in Netanyahu’s annexation-focused version. The “70 percent” entity will not be contiguous territorially and will not control its security, its airspace or its links to the world. It will be a collection of Bantustans surrounded by an Israeli apartheid state.

Finally, Netanyahu’s Israel is already a doubtful and dangerous proposition in the eyes of a growing portion of the American Jewish community. The Israel that emerges from Netanyahu’s annexation adventure could look far worse. This in turn affects the strategic well-being of the entire Jewish people.

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