The Israeli election results produced a stalemate that could take a few weeks to sort out. However, regardless of whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retains his office, he did something in the election run-up that deserves attention. He made waves by declaring his intention to annex the Jordan Valley. Rather than rejecting this idea, Benny Gantz, the other leading prospect for prime minister, responded that Netanyahu was copying his own positions.
In doing so, Netanyahu and Gantz have put annexation on the table in a way that the next Israeli government, as well as the United States and the Palestinians, will have to contend with.
The announcement was met with predictable responses. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, “If the annexation is carried out, it will have succeeded in burying any prospect of peace for the next 100 years.” Others dismissed it as mere electioneering in the days before Israelis voted.
Something more is at work. It is neither as cataclysmic as Israel’s critics suggest, nor as meaningless as political cynics believe.
The Trump administration has signaled its intention to unveil its peace plan soon. Netanyahu said he would pursue his annexation plans in coordination with Trump. And yet, upon hearing of the Netanyahu plan, the administration declared that there has been “no change in U.S. policy.” That policy does not include Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley. What’s going on?
Trump opponents are concluding that there’s some backroom deal in which he has given Netanyahu a green light for annexation. That’s unlikely.
More likely is that in anticipation of the plan’s rollout, the Israelis are jockeying for position. Annexation, after all, is not unprecedented in Israeli history.
Following the 1967 war, Israel immediately annexed the portion of Jerusalem it did not control after its independence in 1948. While Israeli sovereignty over unified Jerusalem remains controversial in the halls of the United Nations, it is not the least bit controversial in the Israeli political system. There is no peace deal under which any Israeli government would relinquish it. President Trump acknowledged this reality in 2017 when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Fourteen years after the war, in 1981, Israel annexed the Golan Heights. This March, Trump recognized the Golan as Israeli territory. The international community’s response was a collective yawn. No one thinks Middle East peace would be well served by having Syria’s barbaric Assad regime resume control of this territory.
The West Bank is different. For 52 years, Israel has administered this territory without annexing it. In broad brush, there are three options for this land. Option one is some form of Palestinian sovereignty. Option two is continuation of the status quo. Option three is Israeli annexation of portions that either have significant strategic value or are home to hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens.
Along comes the Trump peace plan. While it’s true that U.S. policy has not changed, it is about to change. Irrespective of the content of the plan, it will surely represent some alteration of the status quo, and perhaps a substantial one. The Trump administration is about to recommend against the status quo option. Netanyahu and others in the Israeli political system are pushing toward the annexation option.
What are the Palestinians doing?
The Palestinian demand of an independent state in the entire West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital is a non-starter for Israel. However, like the U.S., the Palestinians do not favor the status quo; they just prefer it to any Israeli annexation. Given that array of factors, it would be wise for the Palestinians to seriously engage in negotiations over the Trump plan, if for no other reason than to forestall an Israeli annexation.
And yet, the Palestinians show no inclination to engage.
When Trump announced the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he made clear that the move did not prejudge the final borders of Jerusalem or preclude a future Palestinian state. The Jerusalem decision was unquestionably a setback for Palestinian hopes, but it was also a key inflection point at which they had a choice to make. They made a poor choice.
They could have essentially taken the position that, “We strongly disagree with this American decision, but we are willing to take the president at his word and will discuss with him and the Israelis the final borders of Jerusalem and the contours of a Palestinian state.”
Instead, the Palestinian leadership chose to cut-off all communication with the Trump administration. Rather than stopping the Trump moves, this choice encouraged additional decisions to end U.S. aid to the Palestinians and close the Palestinian office in Washington.
Palestinian leaders are about to face another inflection point. If they greet the Trump plan with the same contempt as they did the Jerusalem decision, they could well end up in an even worse position. Trump officials have said their plan will include some things that all parties like and some that all dislike. If the Palestinians refuse to engage on a proposal that gives them some of what they want, they might just get the annexation they dread.
After 52 years of waiting, in the absence of a partner who shows even the slightest effort to negotiate, many inside and outside the Trump administration will not blame the Israelis for moving ahead.