Image Credit: President of Russia
After the formation of a new government, and with persistent support from Washington, Israel is officially contemplating controversial annexation of areas of the West Bank, with first steps possible as early as July. The plan is in collaboration with Trump’s wider Middle East peace plan released in January, criticised for being heavily weighted toward Israeli political interests.
The move would see Israeli sovereignty applied to settlements within the West Bank. It involves formally annexing a large proportion of Area C, a jurisdictional area created by the 1995 Oslo Accord, which Israel already has significant control over, culminating in a 30% annexation of the occupied West Bank.
This has been facilitated by the breaking of a political stalemate involving three Israeli elections within a year. A unity government has been formed between Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Lukid Party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party, providing Netanyahu with legislative support the annexation he campaigned for in the March 2nd election. Gantz initially opposed annexation, but pledged support as part of an agreement for a unity government to merely organise Israel’s efforts against coronavirus. A vote in the Knesset, possible as early as July 1st, acts as the sole exception, allowing Netanyahu to opportunistically use the crisis to force through his annexation aspirations.
In response, in a speech to Palestinian leadership on May 19th, President Abbas declared that Palestine is ‘absolved, as of today, of all the agreements and understandings with the American and Israeli governments and of all the commitments based on these understandings and agreements, including the security ones’ as a result of the annexation plans.
The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) had voted to provide him with the authority to implement this in 2018, though thus far his previous threats to do so have been largely empty. His current rhetoric, however, is viewed as more sincere, which in combination with his calls for strong international sanctions against Israel, creates concerns of a breakdown in any understanding between Israeli and Palestinian leadership. Abbas’ long-term strategy, since his presidency began in 2005, has been to demonstrate a certain degree of cooperation with Israel to establish a precedent that the two sovereign states could coexist, though both his and Netanyahu’s recent approaches put this prospect at risk.
Moreover, he has limited geopolitical and military power to oppose annexation supported by the US.
The UN has expressed anxieties about annexation. UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov has warned the move poses serious threat to any future peace plans, as it ‘would constitute a most serious violation of international law’ and ultimately ‘deal a devastating blow to the two-state solution’. He has simultaneously called upon international stakeholders, such as the US, EU, and Russia to act as mediators.
Meanwhile, King Abdullah of Jordan is suggesting Netanyahu’s aims undermine relations between Israel and Jordan establish by a 1994 peace treaty that has provided geopolitical and economic benefits to both nations. He firmly claims that ‘If Israel really annexed the West Bank in July, it would lead to a massive conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’. Though, as with Abbas’ bold statements, it is unclear how far Jordan would oppose annexation in reality, given it could place them in direct opposition to Washington.
Annexation is much more feasible with the support from the Trump administration. The US has called for negotiation, though they are adamant that Palestinian acceptance of their peace plan, and by association annexation, must materialise. As part of their foreign policy, in alignment with Netanyahu, the US has effectively given the green light for Israeli prerogative over the West Bank. In April, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed that ‘as for the annexation of the West Bank, the Israelis will ultimately make those decisions’.
For Trump, the peace plan is also notably time sensitive. He is keen to progress this year, considering the possibility he could soon be out of office if Biden wins the presidential election in November. Biden has demonstrated distain at the annexation, stating he ‘will reverse Trump's undercutting of peace’ if he gains presidential office. However, American caution, while often missing under Trump’s presidency, is needed, given the peace plan would be nullified if serious conflict ensues. It could therefore prove costly to unilaterally support Netanyahu’s goals.
Essentially, it remains distinctly uncertain what developments will follow. The future security relationship between Israeli and Palestinian authorities, within complex geographical divisions of jurisdiction in the West Bank, is questionable. Furthermore, it is unclear how cooperative the Palestinian Authority will be, particularly regarding intelligence sharing for counter-terrorism purposes.
What is fundamentally clear is that Israel is striving to exercise greater control over the occupied West Bank. If it will retain the same degree US support for its endeavours as the situation progresses, however, is a different matter.