After three and a half years of close cooperation between the governments of Israel and the United States, the Jewish state is hoping for a least one more gesture of support from President Donald Trump. But the question of whether Trump will give Israel a green light to annex West Bank Jewish settlements in the coming months has stirred a spirited debate within the administration.
At stake is not merely the technical question of whether Israeli law will be extended into West Bank territory, which Israel considers disputed rather than occupied. Rather, it is whether prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government can take advantage of what might be the last months of an administration that has not merely been supportive but also adopted what the Israelis consider to be a far more realistic attitude toward the conflict with the Palestinians than any of its predecessors.
But in launching an all-out lobbying campaign seeking to persuade the administration to approve the measure, the Israelis are presented with a difficult task. They must avoid statements that make it look like they think Trump will lose in November and possibly alienate the hypersensitive president. At the same time, they must also not lose what they think is a historic opportunity that may slip away should former vice president Joe Biden become the next president. Complicating the discussion are the questions of whether Israel’s acting now will undermine Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan for solving the conflict with the Palestinians, and whether annexation will lead to a new round of violence and destabilize the regime of Jordan’s King Abdullah.
Israelis argue that “annexation” is not the right term to describe what they are seeking, since no other country has possessed internationally recognized sovereignty in the West Bank since the British Mandate for Palestine expired in 1948. There has never been an independent Palestinian Arab entity there. Jordan’s occupation of the area from 1948 to 1967 was illegal, recognized only by Britain and Pakistan. Israel claims the right of Jews to live and build there is based on the 1920 San Remo Agreement and the 1922 League of Nations Mandate. Since the land doesn’t belong to anyone else legally, Israel believes it has merely extended its law into disputed territory that is part of the ancient Jewish homeland.
Palestinians and most of the international community disagree. They claim that all Jewish communities in the West Bank — including those in eastern Jerusalem — constitute an illegal occupation of foreign land. Up until Trump, the United States generally agreed with that position. Previous U.S. peace plans called for the division of Jerusalem and narrowly delineated the parts of the West Bank that would be retained by Israel, with the Palestinians to be given parts of pre-1967 Israel in exchange. That meant that dozens of Jewish settlements would have to be abandoned along with the sparsely populated Jordan Valley, which Israel considers its security border. Trump’s plan departs from that precedent, allowing all settlements and their several hundred thousand inhabitants to remain in place and for Israel to keep up to 30 percent of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley. But, as they had done with far more generous offers, the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas rejected Trump’s plan, refusing to discuss the prospect of negotiations.
Rather than rewarding them for their perpetual “no,” the administration’s plan had teeth. Part of the Trump scheme was the promise that if the Palestinians refused to negotiate, that Israel could go ahead and extend its law into the settlements. Since there is no prospect for such negotiations, Netanyahu thinks that Israel is within its rights to do so now. He also knows that if Trump is defeated this fall, this opportunity will vanish.
Biden and his advisers have said that he will be friendlier to Israel than the Obama administration. But Israelis expect a Biden presidency to resemble a third term for Obama. That would mean constant pressure, a tilt toward the Palestinians, and appeasement of Iran. Trump’s plan would be forgotten.
Why, then, is Trump hesitating to give the Israelis the green light? One consideration is the theoretical hope that the Trump plan could work in a second term. An Israeli move predicated on the idea that the Trump plan has already failed because there is no prospect that the Palestinians will ever agree to any part of it would forestall this. It’s possible that the president may cling to hope that his “deal of the century” will ultimately succeed. But Abbas — and any possible successor — is incapable of accepting any pact that ends a century-old war on Zionism, because the Palestinian people will not accept such an admission.
Abbas has threatened to disband the Palestinian Authority to motivate the international community to intervene on his behalf. But he has made such threats dozens of times in the past. There is no chance he would give up the security cooperation with Israel that guarantees his safety against Hamas threats, or that his Fatah Party would give up their kleptocratic West Bank regime.
A more serious problem is the prospect that annexation will trigger another wave of Palestinian terror and unrest that could potentially topple the already shaky moderate regime of Jordan’s King Abdullah. Abdullah is in the uncomfortable position of governing a country with a Palestinian majority that resents its Hashemite monarch and the peace treaty with Israel that similarly ensures his security. While Abdullah may complain if Israel acts, his hold on power is such that there doesn’t appear to be any real danger that he will fall.
Nor should the Palestinians expect the rest of the Arab world to rise up to help them. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states look to Israel as an ally against Iran and are fed up with Palestinian rejectionism. So, too, is Egypt, which is focused on fighting ISIS rebels in the Sinai and regards the Hamas regime in Gaza as a threat.
Both sides in this debate have overhyped its stakes. No conceivable Israeli government would abandon the Jordan Valley or most of the settlements even if peace were possible. Whether or not annexation happens, the settlements are not being given up. And contrary to Biden’s claims that it would doom the two-state solution, should the Palestinian ever choose to make peace, they could still have their state along the lines Trump envisioned.
A Trump approval of Israel’s sovereignty over the settlements would merely recognize the realities of the Middle East, as did his previous moves to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital or to bow out of the Iran nuclear deal. Then, as now, critics claimed these moves would set the region aflame. It’s likely that if Trump says yes to Israel this time, the reaction will again fall short of alarmist predictions.