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PLANS, OLD AND NEW, TO ANNEX THE WEST BANK
by Ron Skolnik
from the Spring 2017 issue of Jewish Currents
FOR DECADES, the right wing has been Israel’s version of the “Party of No.” Just as Republicans in America threw up a wall of obstruction to prevent President Obama from advancing his policy agenda for eight years, so has the bevy of rightwing activists, parties, and organizations in Israel, since the 1993 Oslo Accord, pursued a “Strategy of No” meant to stymie the efforts of the international community and of the occasional center-left Israeli government to achieve a two-state compromise to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But with Binyamin Netanyahu securely ensconced as prime minister since March 2009 — the longest period of unalloyed rightwing dominance in Israel’s history — many in the settlement and occupation movement are coming to realize that they cannot forever only play the role of naysayers. Israel’s citizens are looking to those in power for practical solutions and a clear vision of the future, not simply contrarianism and rejectionism. If not two states, the opponents of partition are repeatedly asked, then what?
In recent years, Israel’s right wing has been constructing answers to this question, building an alternative to the land-for-peace discourse. Emboldened by the failure of successive American administrations to convert diplomatic energy into a concrete peace deal, Israel’s rightwing leaders have been shedding their defensive posture, pronouncing the two-state solution dead, and telling the world to prepare for permanent Israeli control of the entire area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea (variously known as Greater Israel and Mandatory Palestine). Once upon a time, such calls were restricted to an extremist fringe, but one-state ideas are now embraced by senior members of the governing coalition, including Cabinet members from the ruling Likud party.
More recently, Israeli rightists have taken another step toward annexation by translating their slogans of intent into numerous outlines of what a one-state future for Israelis and Palestinians would ultimately look like. The various plans differ in their specifics but are all based on a common illiberal goal: extending Israeli sovereignty into the West Bank without allowing the Palestinians the democratic representation needed to imperil Jewish control.
It was to these plans that Donald Trump was apparently alluding when, at a February press conference with Netanyahu, he stated that he was “looking at two-state and at one-state” and could live with either. (Back in the early 1970s, the Palestine Liberation Organization called for a single “secular democratic state” in which Jews and Arabs would live together on equal footing, but it is highly doubtful that this was the framework to which Trump was referring, if he is even aware of it.)
OF RIGHTWING Israel’s many proposals, the most well-known is the so-called “Stability Initiative,” initially publicized in late 2012 by Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, chair of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party. Ruling out the feasibility of any compromise arrangement with the Palestinians (it’s “childish,” he says, to insist that every problem has a solution), and acknowledging that full annexation would undo Israel’s Jewish majority, Bennett proposes, instead, that Israel annex “Area C,” the 60 percent of the West Bank where all of Israel’s 400,000 settlers (not including in East Jerusalem) live and where, under the Oslo Accords, Israel maintains absolute interim control. Per the plan, the Palestinians living in Area C would be offered either Israeli citizenship or “permanent residency,” a status comparable to America’s green card, but without a path to citizenship. The estimated number of Area C Palestinians varies widely, from 50,000, per the Israeli army, to some 300,000 according to UN reports.
Bennett proposes, furthermore, that the approximately 2.5 million Palestinians living in the remainder of the West Bank in a series of non-contiguous enclaves known as Areas A and B be allowed “self-rule” — a code word in Israel for stateless, local autonomy. He sugarcoats his initiative with a call to establish a “Marshall Plan for Judea and Samaria,” using the Biblical name for the West Bank. The status of Gaza under the “Stability Initiative” would remain unchanged.
Bennett argues smugly that the international community will bark but not bite, should Israel implement his plan. “And what will the world say?” asks the narrator of the snappy YouTube video promoting Bennett’s program, before answering: “The world doesn’t recognize Israel’s sovereignty in [East] Jerusalem or the Golan Heights. So Area C can be added to the list!”
The plan, it should be noted, in no way relinquishes claims to the remaining, un-annexed portion of the West Bank: Israel, Bennett emphasizes, would “not concede [any] piece of land.” His party colleague, Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel, sharpened the picture last June by indicating that partial annexation would be just Stage One: “If someone asks about Areas A and B,” he said, “their time will come . . . For now, let’s agree on Area C.”
Bennett’s implicit goal is to add to Israel “maximum territory, minimum Arabs” — a phrase used explicitly by Dr. Yoaz Hendel, former head of National Hasbara, the government’s public relations unit, under Netanyahu and currently the chair of the Institute for Zionist Strategies. The approach is far from novel: The same principle was employed by Israel’s Labor-led government following the war in 1967 when it decided where to expand the boundaries of Jerusalem before annexing to Israel the enlarged municipal area.
Hendel, believing that full annexation would be financially unbearable and a gateway to binationalism, wants Israel to annex the major settlement blocs as well as the Jordan Valley, a total area, he calculates, which makes up “only” 30 percent of the West Bank. Palestinians in the annexed region would be granted full Israeli citizenship. The Palestinian Authority would be allowed to control Areas A and B, 40 percent of the West Bank, and could call itself an “expanded autonomy, a demilitarized state or the third Palestinian empire, as far as I’m concerned,” Hendel remarked snidely. The remaining 30 percent of the West Bank would be considered a “disputed zone” where the status quo of occupation would continue. Even with this, Hendel doesn’t really mean what he says: The Palestinian entity could control its own economy and internal affairs, but it would be forbidden to take in Palestinian refugees and would need to remain completely permeable to the entry of Israeli security forces. To underscore his emphasis on Israeli dominance, Hendel says his proposed arrangement would be imposed unilaterally by Israel, without any negotiation with the Palestinians themselves.
NOT EVERYONE on the Israeli right is enamored of the relative ‘magnanimity’ and ‘moderation’ of such proposals. MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Jewish Home), for example, rejects the piecemeal approach of her party leader, Bennett. Talk of partial annexation is mistaken, she says, because it would continue to give the Palestinians hope. It is “necessary to make clear,” she stated, “that the goal is application of Israeli law over the entire . . . Land of Israel.”
Journalist and activist Caroline Glick, who writes for the rightwing Makor Rishon and is deputy managing editor of the Jerusalem Post, believes that mentioning even reduced Palestinian statehood, as in Hendel’s plan, poses a danger to Israel. She therefore demands a full if gradual annexation of the entire West Bank. (As with Bennett’s plan, she does not relate to the Gaza Strip.) Using sketchy demographic claims that Israel’s right has adopted, but which are rejected by the Israeli army, Glick foresees a Greater Israel in fifty years with “nine to ten million Jews . . . and an Arab minority of three to four million.” But while Glick and others peddle the claim that her plan involves the full naturalization of West Bank Palestinians, her many stipulations belie its “One Person, One Vote” character. Asked whether her outline would allow Arabs to vote for Knesset, Glick replies: “Some will and some won’t . . . We’re not giving full rights, and certainly not suffrage rights, to anyone who belongs to a terrorist organization or the Palestinian Authority apparatus. All those will have to undergo de-Nazification.”
She fails to mention that the Palestinian Authority employs a whopping 150,000 people, and that huge numbers of West Bank residents have been affiliated over the years with the PLO, which she continues to categorize as a terrorist group. In other words, a huge portion of the Palestinian population would be denied voting rights. Glick’s plan also includes a period of disenfranchised local autonomy (of undefined length) that would precede any steps toward naturalization.
To accomplish her plan, Glick believes Israel should be “reducing our . . . dependence upon the United States.” Overall, though, she is not particularly concerned by international reaction, and, like Bennett, believes the world would do nothing to stop Israel. Annexation might not be formally recognized, but “so what?” she quips.
MKs Bezalel Smotrich and Miki Zohar, of the Jewish Home and Likud parties, respectively, are even more explicit about the permanent disenfranchisement that awaits Palestinians under annexation. Here’s Smotrich at an October 2015 public forum (note again the alternative-facts demography): “They tell us that we will have to give citizenship to a million and a half Arabs, but I say that if we must choose between democratic and Jewish, I have no doubt what I would choose. . . [T]here are models of democracy in the world that do not give citizenship.” An even more plainspoken Zohar has stated that “we must not give [the Palestinians] citizenship” when Israel annexes the territories. Denying West Bank Palestinians the right to vote, he stresses, is essential to the one-state plan.
SCHEMES FOR ISRAELI domination of the West Bank are indeed springing up like mushrooms after the rain. A “Jordan is Palestine” plan would keep the West Bank in Israel’s hands but turn its Palestinian population into Jordanian expatriate citizens, making them the political and economic responsibility of the Hashemite Kingdom. A plan put forth by Dr. Mordechai Kedar insists that Palestinians have no actual national aspirations, are tribal in identity, and regard the local sheikh as the only true leader. Hence, with clear echoes of South African Bantustans, he calls for turning the seven major West Bank cities (not including East Jerusalem) into disconnected “city-states” or “emirates” that would handle economic affairs and other local matters. Israel would control all the territory outside these cities; the Palestinians living there would be allowed to stay, and “might” be granted Israeli citizenship if they were “peaceful.”
Moshe Feiglin, a former Likud MK who has formed his own far-right Zehut (“Identity”) party, believes that Israel should exploit future military campaigns in the West Bank and Gaza (which are “just a matter of time”) in order to expand sovereignty over the entire territory. Palestinians would be given three options: “voluntary emigration with the aid of a generous emigration grant;” permanent residency for “those Arabs who publicly declare their loyalty to the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish Nation;” and a “long-term process of attaining citizenship” that would be “reserved for relatively few Arabs, and only in accordance with Israeli interests.” Feiglin compares his plan to the acquisition of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands by the U.S. (which “did not grant citizenship to the local residents for decades”), and argues that it is “perfectly fine . . . to create a separate civil status” for non-Jews, because the “State of Israel was established to be the state of the Jewish Nation.”
One Likud activist has been pushing a plan to have the international community create a fund that would encourage Arabs to emigrate, not just from the West Bank and Gaza but from Israel proper. Another suggestion would have Israel neutralize the voting power of newly enfranchised West Bank Palestinians by scrapping the country’s proportional electoral system in favor of gerrymandered districts. The result: “In Israel, just like in America, it will be possible to lose the popular vote and still win the national election.”
Not all one-state plans are necessarily anti-democratic. Israel’s primarily ceremonial president, Reuven Rivlin, a member of the Likud party’s more liberal old guard, recently declared that he supported the application of Israeli sovereignty to the entire West Bank. However, he stressed, “[i]f we extend sovereignty, the law must apply equally to all,” because “[a]pplying sovereignty to an area gives citizenship to all those living there.” There can be “no separate law for Israelis and for non-Israelis,” Rivlin stated.
Such proposals, which were once politically marginal, are now gaining mainstream traction. A January-February 2017 poll revealed that fully 37 percent of Jewish Israelis (32 percent of Israelis overall) favor “annexing large parts of Judea and Samaria/the West Bank” in the wake of Trump’s election, with 53 percent of Israeli Jews opposed. Even more worryingly, in response to a separate question about a hypothetical annexation, only one quarter of Jewish Israelis said that the Palestinian residents of Israeli-annexed territories should become citizens. Sixty-two percent felt they should either be given a non-voting residency status (30 percent) or that their status under the Occupation should continue unchanged (32 percent).
One can even notice some blending of late between leftwing and rightwing visions. Dovish Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua, while proclaiming continued fealty to the two-state approach, has called for a “partial solution” that would grant Israeli residency without voting rights to the Palestinians living in Area C, “in order to ease the burden of the occupation.” Such a residency status, he argues, would afford these Palestinians “social security benefits, health care, unemployment benefits, minimum wage, freedom of movement, and a stronger legal status” vis-à-vis Israel’s occupation authorities. Yehoshua explains that his proposal is an expression of the “humanitarian duty to reduce human suffering.”
THEN THERE IS the Two States One Homeland organization. While its program is not rightwing in the classic sense, it has drawn support from a slice of the settlement movement due to its call for a two-state “Open Land” regime, under which citizens of Israel and of a future State of Palestine would be allowed to live, travel, work and trade anywhere in either country. In other words, settlers would be allowed to dwell in the West Bank and Gaza, but would need to accept Palestinian sovereignty if residing there within the borders of a Palestinian state.
Not all Israelis are lining up for annexation. Political centrists such as Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, which polls as the second most popular party in Israel, and former foreign minister MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) continue to adhere to the “two states for two peoples” idea. Speaking to the BBC after the Trump-Netanyahu confab, Livni maintained that “the conflict is a national conflict between two national movements . . . Zionism . . . and the national Palestinian movement . . . Each people [must] implement [its] own right of self-determination.” A former Likudnik, Livni said she would fight against any annexation plan that turns Israel into an apartheid state. She also dismissed Rivlin’s democratic one-state approach as well-intentioned but naïve. The outcome, she warned, “would not be living happily ever after,” it would be “bloody.”
Even some rightwingers are urging restraint, such as Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who cautioned that an annexation of territory by Israel would precipitate an “immediate crisis” with the U.S. and countries the world over. He told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the coalition government “should clearly state that there is no intention to impose [Israeli] sovereignty.”
But with the two-state ideal having failed to deliver and growing increasingly musty, momentum is on the side of Israeli expansionists, who feel the time is ripe to move their fight from the public square into the legislative realm. On February 6, the Knesset passed a law, with the backing of Netanyahu, that allows Israel to expropriate Palestinian private property in the Occupied Territories if settlers have “inadvertently” trespassed upon it and created a settlement there.
MKs from the “Land of Israel caucus,” with the support of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, are pushing a new bill that would annex Ma’aleh Adumim, a settlement city (population 40,000) just east of Jerusalem. The city is generally expected to remain part of Israel under any future peace accord. But Jewish public opinion in Israel seems ready to take unilateral steps and not wait for that deal: A 2016 poll found that 78 percent of Israeli Jews would back the bill, with 60 percent maintaining that support even when told that it might elicit harsh international reaction.
For his part, Netanyahu prevaricates, seeking to please his rightwing allies without overstepping what the United States will allow. While the majority of Knesset members elected in 2015 support a two-state solution, he has forged an enduring coalition dominated by those who don’t. When speaking to foreign audiences, Netanyahu pays lip service to the two-state formula (although at his February press conference with Trump, he dismissed the phrase as an unhelpful “label”). Yet he demands preconditions — including full, ongoing Israeli security control of the West Bank — that align him with the fundamentals of the one-state camp.
Netanyahu conditionally agreed to a future Palestinian state in his much-discussed 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, but he has never sought either his party’s or his government’s backing for these words, and he makes no effort to rein in his many coalition colleagues who are campaigning in favor of annexation. He has also stated that his personal “vision” is to “enact sovereignty over all the settlements” [emphasis added] spread out across Area C — a broad hint at his own support for annexation of at least that major section of the West Bank.
Unless called to order by the Trump administration, Netanyahu, who faces no imminent electoral threat, is likely to continue his one-state/two-state tightrope act for the foreseeable future, while his government expands settlements, approves laws and implements other measures that lead Israel ever further down the path toward an undemocratic one-state future.
Ron Skolnik (@Ron_Skolnik) is associate editor of Jewish Currents. His writings have been published in Haaretz, The Jerusalem Report, Tikkun, Palestine-Israel Journal and elsewhere. He previously served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel and as director of Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA).