Israel Is on the Brink of Disaster. Trump Just Made Things Worse.
Israel’s right-wing leaders are reading signals from Washington as a green light.
By Michael J. Koplow 25/03/2019
Dr. Koplow is an advocate for a viable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
On April 9, Israelis will go to the polls to choose their next government. The campaign has largely been a referendum on whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should remain Israel’s leader in light of his expected indictment in three corruption cases for bribery and breach of trust. With those scandals front and center, policy disagreements have largely been ignored, leaving Israeli voters at risk of unwittingly bringing an avoidable disaster on themselves by annexing territory in the West Bank.
President Trump just raised that risk.
How so? On Twitter on Thursday, he wrote that “it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!” It is the latest, and most important, signal from Washington that Mr. Trump is ready to acknowledge Israeli control of the Golan Heights.
But those signals are also being read by the Israeli right wing as an encouragement to pursue annexation of territory in the West Bank — a far more dangerous step that would present Israel with an unparalleled existential threat to its Jewish and democratic character.
To be sure, there is a big difference between the two territories, both of which came under Israeli control in the 1967 war. The sparsely populated Golan Heights, seized from Syria and annexed by Israel in 1981 in defiance of international criticism, were being used by Syria to bombard Israel’s Galilee region below.The West Bank, on the other hand, is densely populated and its future has been the most intractable issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1967. Annexing it would foreclose independence for a Palestinian nation, and risk inflaming the entire Middle East.
That threat is not beyond the horizon any more. The young, charismatic New Right party leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, both ministers in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition government, lead the annexation movement, and their zeal has seeped into Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party as well. Of the 29 Likud legislators running for re-election, 28 are on record as supporting annexation of at least a part of the West Bank, as is the Likud Central Committee.
Most significantly, the speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, who is No. 2 on Likud’s electoral slate behind Mr. Netanyahu, said on Sunday that a description of the Golan Heights as “Israeli-controlled” in the recent annual report of the United States State Department — a shift from previous reports that called it “Israeli-occupied” — represented an important first step toward recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank.
Reaching that goal, however, would create challenges as harrowing as any Israel has faced since its war of independence. As cataloged by the Israeli group Commanders for Israel’s Security, annexation would cost billions of dollars annually, would create virtually indefensible borders because of the spider web of Israeli-governed territory within the larger West Bank that most supporters of this plan want to annex, provide ammunition to the anti-Israeli Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and destroy Israel’s foreign relations with a host of countries.
It would also ensure that the partisan split emerging in the United States over Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians becomes a chasm. It might even open a rift between Mr. Netanyahu and his stalwart ally President Trump, who thinks himself able to devise an ultimate deal between Israelis and Palestinians, by making any such deal impossible.
Most important, annexing the West Bank — whether just the 60 percent of it that Israel controls now, or its entirety — would bring the collapse of security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and likely cause the demise of the authority, forcing Israel to take over all of the West Bank, like it or not. Israel would then have to grant citizenship to the 2.5 million Palestinians living there, giving itself the choice of no longer functioning as a Jewish state, or destroy its democracy by denying the Palestinians political equality. If anything can truly threaten Israel, the region’s pre-eminent military and economic powerhouse, it is that.
While Mr. Netanyahu himself has been the sole Likud leader not explicitly supporting annexation in the West Bank, his political predicament might well pull him into the annexationist camp. His legal problems create a strong incentive to form a government that will pass a law barring the indictment of a sitting prime minister.
Voter surveys suggest the election next month will result in an almost even split between the Netanyahu-led bloc of Likud and its allied parties, and an opposition bloc led by Benny Gantz. That means Mr. Netanyahu will remain in power at the whim of his preferred right-wing coalition partners, whose leverage over a prime minister seeking to stay out of jail will be enormous. And the item at the top of their wish list is extending Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank.
Most worrisome, Israelis have been barely paying attention. As the Israeli journalist Aluf Benn points out, this is a campaign that won’t turn on any issues but on Mr. Netanyahu himself. And to the extent that Israelis are paying attention to policy, they are concerned about terrorism and the cost of living, with only 9 percent listing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as their top concern and just 2 percent listing the future of the West Bank. Even though only 15 percent of Jewish Israelis support annexing the West Bank, a core of right-wing activists are poised to overrun the preferences of a much larger but less ideologically dedicated majority.
Should Mr. Netanyahu emerge victorious once again, the prospects of Israel taking this path are alarmingly high. The pro-annexationists have never put forth a detailed proposal of what annexation will entail.
Israeli voters may be about to rush headlong into quicksand that they don’t even realize exists.
Michael J. Koplow is the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum in Washington.