Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans will compound the suffering of Palestinians. International condemnation should be accompanied by consequences
Annexation looks like the executioner of the two-state solution. Israel has changed the facts on the ground, with the rapid growth of settlements rendering that goal less and less viable. But the declaration of sovereignty over parts of the occupied territories, in putting a formal seal on physical realities, will be a new and terrible moment, and above all a fresh injustice to Palestinians.
Under the deal agreed to form Israel’s unhappy unity government, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, can begin annexation from 1 July. But the plans may be delayed. Benny Gantz, Mr Netanyahu’s coalition partner and political foe, has said that the date is neither “sacred” nor urgent, given a second surge in coronavirus cases and economic damage from the first. While Donald Trump is as erratic as ever, Israeli media have reported that a lack of US support is pushing back an announcement.
The plans may also be diminished. Though Mr Netanyahu has leaned towards a maximalist stance, including all of the Jordan Valley and up to 30% of the West Bank, there are signs that the international pushback may have led him to initially focus on a handful of settlement blocks close to Jerusalem in an essentially symbolic move.
The corruption charges that Mr Netanyahu faces mean that he needs a big prize for voters. Though some think an eternally deferred promise may be more useful to him than delivery, too long a delay might mean a new US president thanks to November’s election: Joe Biden is unlikely to keep handing Mr Netanyahu gifts as Mr Trump has done, even if he also seems unlikely to claim them back.
Whenever annexation comes, and whatever precise form it takes, it will breach international law. As Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, observed: “Annexation is illegal. Period. Whether it is 30% of the West Bank, or 5%.”
The consequences for Israel and its neighbours are far-reaching and potentially calamitous. More than 200 former leaders from Mossad, Shin Bet, the military and the police have said that it risks igniting “a serious conflagration”, including through the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. King Abdullah of Jordan warned of a “massive conflict”. The UN secretary general, António Guterres, has warned that it would destabilise the region. Yet critics point out that Mr Netanyahu and others will have factored these issues into their thinking and have calculated that Jordan and Egypt, for instance, will ultimately uphold agreements which serve their own interests.
What is unarguable is that annexation is wrong. Israeli voices that angrily rejected comparisons with apartheid South Africa in the past now draw it themselves as they contemplate the institutionalisation of the military occupation, without the granting of citizenship or equal rights to Palestinians. The lawyer Michael Sfard predicts a large-scale expropriation of Palestinian land and property, and expulsions.
Leading Jewish figures and groups in the UK, the US and elsewhere have expressed concern and outrage. The international condemnation has been loud. But no country has taken concrete measures in response, notes Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority.
Labour has said it will support a ban on Israeli imports made in West Bank settlements if the annexation goes ahead. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, has warned that its ties with Israel will “inevitably” retract. There is a precedent: the sanctions imposed on Russia over the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol. Be they diplomatic or economic, real consequences are now required.