Under cover of COVID-19, with full U.S. backing, Israel is poised to take a step that will dramatically alter its character and risk its future security.
As Israel swears in a new government on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is preparing to unilaterally annex around 30% of the Palestinian West Bank.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is visiting Israel this week, has said annexation is “ultimately Israel’s decision to make.” The U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, says Washington will recognize the move, which is likely to come within weeks.
Yet this U.S-backed territory grab will put Israel firmly on the road to a one-state reality, in which Arabs soon will outnumber Jews in a Greater Israel between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. That is a formula that will lead to the end of a democratic Jewish state.
So why is the Trump administration reversing decades of U.S. policy supporting a two-state solution? Even though Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have long been moribund, the situation on the ground is stable, without any pressing need to rule out the prospect of two states.
The answer is that President Donald Trump is promoting his own “peace deal,” devised by first son-in-law Jared Kushner, that adopts Netanyahu’s longtime vision for the West Bank. This deal is no doubt driven more by the prospect of pleasing his evangelical base than by any grasp of the region. And it will drive Israel toward the stark opposite of “peace.”
Once Israel annexes the Jordan Valley, along with 132 Jewish recognized settlements (some the size of cities) and 124 Jewish outposts, Palestinians will officially be divided into many disconnected cantons of land, connected by tunnels and bridges (including a link to Gaza).
As Netanyahu has described it, it would be a “state-minus, autonomy-plus,” meaning Palestinians would be essentially limited to local control over disconnected cantons of land. Israel would maintain overall control over borders, sea and air space, foreign trade, bandwidth, water, etc., for the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian voting rights would be limited to choosing mayors or leaders of this Swiss-cheese-like territory, which has almost no powers of its own.
Ambassador Friedman, a major backer of the Israeli settlement movement, claims that Trump’s plan “gives Palestinians a clear path to statehood and a huge influx of economic investment.” This is a mirage. As has been proven time and again, investors will shy away from the West Bank and Gaza so long as their political status remains unsettled, with uncertainty of whether goods can get to market.
A state-minus of noncontiguous Palestinian cantons won’t become Singapore — the rich city-state cited by Kushner as a model — but will remain mostly dependent on doing low-end jobs for Israeli companies and firms.
In other words, far from offering the Palestinians a great opportunity, as the White House claims, Israel’s annexation plans will make its control of the West Bank and Gaza permanent. And this spells big trouble for Israel down the road.
I say this not just because annexation will fuel the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement around the world, including in Europe. Or because I believe it will cause trouble with Israel’s Arab neighbors. (Yes, it will create a dangerous rift with neighboring Jordan, but most Arab countries are focused on other serious problems right now.)
But rather, the real danger will emerge within Greater Israel. Deprived of political rights and any chance of a state, Palestinians will inevitably gravitate toward demanding equal political rights within Greater Israel — meaning one-person, one-vote. A Palestinian movement demanding full civil rights is likely to garner global support. An Israeli failure to grant those rights will rouse comparisons with apartheid South Africa.
Yet, in a single bi-national state, Palestinian Arabs would soon outnumber Jews. Already, the number of Palestinian Arabs living in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, plus Palestinian citizens of Israel, is approximately equal to the number of Jewish citizens of Israel. .
Having covered the Israel-Palestine issue for decades, including six years based in Jerusalem as a Middle East correspondent, I believe a bi-national Israeli-Palestinian state is a non-starter. In a region where all politics is intensely communal, neither Israelis nor Palestinians will accept political control by the other. This is a formula for ceaseless conflict.
My feelings echo those of Joel Singer, a noted international lawyer who worked for both Likud and Labor governments for almost 25 years negotiating peace and other agreements with all of Israel’s neighbors, including the Palestinians.
Singer told me: “A Swiss cheese reality cannot stand,” referring to the West Bank. “A one-state movement is inevitable in the long run.
“The real threat to Israel is becoming a Palestinian-Jewish country with possible eternal cycles of violence and [temporary] peace with no way out. Israel will be like Northern Ireland or Lebanon, with a new reality of endless civil war.”
This is the road down which the Trump peace plan is pushing the Israeli state.