Netanyahu still has time to change his mind on annexation

Netanyahu still has time to change his mind on annexation

The historian Josephus Flavius recounts that, in one of the greatest unforced errors in history, two Hasmonean brothers who went to war over the throne of Judaea invited the great Roman general Pompey to resolve their dispute. Pompey intervened, and the Romans never left. It was the Jews who, several centuries later, were driven out of what the Romans had renamed Palestine. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE’s plan to annex portions of the West Bank, which he may announce as soon as July 1, may not be as great an unforced error, but an unforced error it certainly is.

Despite the fig leaf that is the Palestinian Authority, Israel de facto still controls virtually all of the West Bank. Jewish settlers are protected by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF); they benefit from Israeli infrastructure; they vote in Israeli elections. Palestinians are protected by the Authority’s own weak security forces, which operate under the watchful eye of the IDF. They are subject to Israeli interference in their lives at any time. They can only vote in Palestinian elections, when elections actually take place, which is not often. Annexation will not change much either for Israelis residing in the West Bank, or for their Palestinian neighbors. 

In one sense, however, annexation will make a difference — but only for Palestinians. Although they will be residents of Israel, they still will not be able to vote in Israeli elections. Instead, they will continue to vote in Palestinian elections, despite not being residents in Palestinian territory. In effect, Palestinians will be treated as no better than resident aliens, not even as second-class citizens. They will not be citizens at all, and will have no right to determine who should govern them. How Israel can then continue to call itself “the only true democracy in the Middle East,” beggars the imagination.

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Israelis assert that, just as there was much breast-beating over America’s moving its embassy to Jerusalem, with no evident short-term or even medium-term consequences, so too will the fuss over annexation abate quickly enough. In the Israeli narrative, King Abdullah of Jordan is merely posturing with his threat to break relations; he will never carry it out. His forces are too reliant on the cooperation of the IDF. As for the Gulf states that currently are working hand-in-glove with Israel to counter the Iranian threat to them both, they too will do little to jeopardize their valuable de facto alliance with the Jewish state. The Europeans will continue to huff and puff, but will not do anything to upset trading relations with the so-called “start-up” nation. In short, all will be fine.

But all will not be fine. King Abdullah’s royal consort is Palestinian. The majority of his subjects are Palestinians. He cannot simply look aside as Israel is perceived to be annexing land that Palestinians had hoped to retain in the context of a peace agreement with Israel. Were he to do so, he could be putting his life at risk. After all, his father survived several assassination attempts and his great-grandfather died at the hands of an assassin.

Some of the Gulf states may elect to maintain clandestine relations with Israel; others may not. And none will likely be willing to go beyond intelligence cooperation, for example, maintaining their burgeoning trading relations with the Jewish state. The Europeans likewise will not sit quietly in the face of annexation. They may determine that they must react, perhaps by supporting the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement, with all that might entail for future trade and investment relations with Jerusalem.

Finally, annexation will strengthen growing opposition to Israel within the resurgent Democratic Party. Israel’s ambassador to Washington and his counterpart in Jerusalem have been urging Netanyahu to move forward with annexation while Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Michael Cohen book accuses Trump of corruption, fraud Trump requests mail-in ballot for Florida congressional primary MORE is president. They recognize that if Joe BidenJoe BidenHarris to host virtual Hollywood campaign event co-chaired by Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling Trump plans to accept Republican nomination from White House lawn US seizes four vessels loaded with Iranian fuel MORE wins, he will not support such a move. Biden would be under tremendous pressure from the Democrats’ increasingly powerful left-wing faction to retaliate by throwing his support behind BDS. 

The New York primaries have demonstrated the growing power of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezDemocrats hammer Trump for entertaining false birther theory about Harris Overnight Energy: EPA finalizes rollback of Obama-era oil and gas methane emissions standards | Democratic lawmakers ask Interior to require masks indoors at national parks | Harris climate agenda stresses need for justice Markey riffs on JFK quote in new ad touting progressive bona fides MORE and her supporters, who are not sympathetic to Israel, as exemplified by the defeat of Rep. Eliot Engel, the longtime friend of Israel who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Should the Democrats take the Senate as well as the House, that would spell long-term trouble for Israel — even if Trump is re-elected.

There is still time for Netanyahu to reconsider his annexation plans. They are not going to change the reality on the ground. But they will put Israel in a position that will be far worse than the mid-1970s, when the United Nations equated Zionism with racism. Netanyahu is a clever man; he should avoid his unforced error while he still has time to do so.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.