Stopping Israel’s annexation is a US national security interest
Opponents of Israel unilaterally annexing portions of the West Bank frequently couch their concerns in terms of the infringement on Palestinian rights and aspirations for statehood. Those concerns are real. Yet we would add another reason for opposition: the damage that would be done to American security interests.
Each of us has devoted a significant portion of our personal and professional lives to advocating — and acting — in support of Israel’s security. We have worked closely with Israel’s leaders and security professionals to increase U.S. assistance, enhance U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation, and exploit technological breakthroughs.
Our efforts reflect the persistent, significant threats Israel faces from Iran and its terrorist proxies, and the need to ensure that agreements between Israel and its neighbors, including any permanent arrangement reached with the Palestinians, not leave Israel less secure.
We are driven by our understanding of the United States’s deep moral commitment to ensure Israel’s security and legitimacy, which have never known a day without being under assault. But just as important, we see the security of our only reliable democratic ally in the Middle East as an essential American interest that cannot be put at risk.
Our opposition to unilateral annexation derives from this U.S. interest. When it comes to Israel’s security, annexation will do nothing to enhance Israel’s ability to respond to external threats. Meanwhile, Israel’s security vis-à-vis the Palestinians will only get worse.
Our Israeli counterparts have consistently expressed support and appreciation for the professional cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces. They have worked together — effectively, if not perfectly — even during periods of high tension, such as conflicts in Gaza, to foil terrorist attacks by Hamas and other terrorist groups.
Annexation puts such cooperation at risk. Already, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has announced he will terminate agreements with Israel. He has levied this threat often, so skepticism is warranted. But the basis for Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation has always been both mutual interest in combating Hamas and Palestinian expectations that a gradual process would lead to viable Palestinian statehood. When unilateral redrawing of the map makes that unattainable, the whole structure is weakened.
If the Palestinian security forces cease to function, Israel would end up back in full control of Palestinian cities in the West Bank. No Israeli security official we know wants that.
Annexation creates other significant risks. A joint U.S.-Israeli mapping committee is drawing boundaries for annexation, with no Palestinian input, based on conceptual maps in President Trump’s peace plan. Whether there is professional Israeli security input is unclear. But the only Palestine that could emerge from this drill would be decomposed into non-contiguous segments — unsuitable to the Palestinians, most Americans, Europeans and much of the Arab world.
Moreover, annexation of all Israeli settlements, as Trump’s plan envisions, will necessarily create long, serpentine borders. If Trump’s plan were implemented in full, the new borders would be hundreds of miles long, with dozens of crossing points. They would be difficult to defend, requiring expensive new infrastructure and large troop deployments, drawn from Israel’s northern and southern fronts. The Israeli military is one of the great maneuver forces in the world. How much of that force would be relegated to guarding checkpoints at border crossings?
Meanwhile, Israel, facing coronavirus budget pressures, would have to draw from resources devoted to worsening external threats. Those threats could include a harsh reaction by the Jordanian public, perhaps forcing the hand of the Jordanian leadership. King Abdullah has even implied that Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel could be at risk. We should resist such warnings, given the U.S. investment in Jordan and interest in its good ties with Israel. But we should not be blasé about the dangers.
Speculation about the broader Arab public, the so-called “Arab street,” and official Arab reaction to U.S. and Israeli steps is often over-hyped. But even if Arab leaders’ warnings are muted, they tell us their space to continue their gradual warming toward Israel will shrink. Annexation will cost opportunities to expand and strengthen a U.S.-affiliated camp of Israel and moderate Arab states.
And Israeli consensus holds that the Jordan Valley, one of the areas targeted for annexation, must serve as a security border against threats from the east. It poses special challenges.
Yet during our work in 2013-14 with Israeli leaders on security requirements in a two-state solution, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself presented creative ideas to ensure Israel’s security needs in the Jordan Valley could be met without applying Israeli sovereignty. Israeli military leaders were open to a range of solutions. Then, they were sensitive to the political needs of Palestinian leaders and the impact on Israel’s relationship with Jordan. What has changed?
The United States and Israel define each other’s security as essential to their own. In the United States, this relationship rests on support that is strong, long-term and bipartisan. But it is not monolithic. Large segments of the American population are deeply supportive, but that support could be damaged by unilateral annexation. While the Trump administration obviously sets current policy, it would be unfortunate for Israeli leaders, shortly before an American election, to show disregard for what its friends and supporters in the Democratic Party, and more broadly among the American people, view as critical U.S. strategic interests.
Former vice president Joe Biden has said that his administration would act to revive flagging prospects for two states, which he defines as a U.S. interest. A rushed Israeli process to jam through annexation before November to create facts on the ground is not the best way to nurture our relationship.
Benny Gantz, Israel’s new defense minister and alternate prime minister, and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi each commanded the Israel Defense Forces. They take a broad view of Israel’s security interests, prize the U.S.-Israeli strategic alignment that enjoys bipartisan American support, and value Israel’s cooperation with Palestinian and Jordanian partners. They have neither a program nor a constituency that demands annexation. We hope they will raise these issues in the Israeli debate, and we hope the Israeli cabinet as a whole will listen carefully to the concerns and warnings of some of Israel’s best friends.
John R. Allen is president of the Brookings Institution. He is a retired U.S. Marine Corps four-star general and former commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. He led the security dialogue during the Israeli-Palestinian peace process under the Obama administration from 2013 to 2014.
Daniel B. Shapiro is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. He served as U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017.