Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is showing no sign of backing off his vow to annex of vast stretches of the West Bank by July 1, despite outcry from international leaders, including Arab powers who say the move will usher in violence and destabilize the Middle East.
While Netanyahu supporters say the annexation will solidify Israel’s sovereignty and harden its security barrier against terrorism and Iranian aggression, critics say it will ruin any chance of lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace and undermine delicate relations Israel has built with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in recent years.
Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and the Saudis have all come out firmly against it, a reality that may explain the Trump administration’s indecision on the issue during recent weeks, despite having appeared to be fully behind it earlier this year.
Palestinian leaders have long hoped the West Bank, which was captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, would form a major part of a future Palestinian state, with east Jerusalem as its capital.
Some analysts say they won’t be surprised if he proceeds, knowing that President Trump will back him, and that the moment for such backing could soon be lost if Mr. Trump does not win re-election later this year.
“Annexation by Israel of the hunks of the West Bank is, unfortunately, the logical next step in a long trajectory of occupation and settlement,” says Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“A long line of United States presidents has been out-maneuvered by Israeli prime ministers to bring us to this point,” Mr. Landis told The Washington Times over the weekend, adding that while Palestinians may be wronged, predictions of impending regional doom are overblown.
“I do not believe that annexation will unleash a world of hell across the region. Most Arabs feel hopeless about the Palestinian cause, fearing that it is already lost,” Mr. Landis said. “Israel has become so strong, moved so many of its citizens onto Palestinian land, and the Arabs so weak and divided, that Arabs despair that the annexation can be stopped.”
In order to win re-election back in March, Mr. Netanyahu vowed to right-wing Israeli political blocs that he would go forward with a major annexation by July 1.
His vow came months after the Trump administration had rolled out a new roadmap to Middle East peace that said Washington was preparing to recognize Israeli control over major portions of the West Bank. While the Trump plan suggested Israel would eventually have U.S. backing to absorb Jewish settlements across the West Bank, as well several fertile areas of the Jordan River valley near the border with Jordan, administration officials said the exact territorial contours for annexation were still being analyzed.
As of late last week, the administration was seen to be divided on the matter. A senior White House official said on condition of anonymity Thursday that there was still “no final decision” on the next steps for implementing the administration’s roadmap for Middle East peace.
Jordan has been particularly critical of the annexation drive. Amman has issued a warning against any Israeli “annexation of Palestinian lands” and called for a return to 1967 borders with a new Palestinian state encompassing the entire West Bank.
There are concerns that Jordan may respond by suspending a $10 billion gas deal that currently lets Israeli natural gas flow into Jordanian power plants for electricity generation. According to Reuters, the deal between Jordan’s state-owned utility and a U.S.-Israeli consortium led by Texas-based Noble Energy has been in place since 2016.
The Saudis and Emiratis have been on a gradual path toward diplomatic normalization with Israel in recent years and both have been key to the Trump administration’s wider Israeli-Palestinian peace roadmap that has called for a $50 billion economic program for Palestinians paid for by the wealthy Gulf Arab nations.
If Mr. Netanyahu moves forward with annexations in July, it will “destroy any prospect for peace,” Ahmed Aboul Ghet, who heads the 22-member Arab League, said in remarks last week during a U.N. Security Council video conference.
“The possible move by the Israeli government to annex parts of the occupied Palestinian territory would constitute, if implemented, a serious threat to regional stability,” Mr. Ghet added, according to the publication Asharq Alawsat.
U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres offered a similar assessment, asserting that “we are at a watershed moment,” and that “if implemented, annexation would constitute a most serious violation of international law, grievously harm the prospect of a two-state solution and undercut the possibilities of a renewal of [Israeli-Palestinian peace] negotiations.”
“I call on the Israeli government to abandon its annexation plans,” Mr. Guterres said.
United Arab Emirates (UAE) Minister of State Yousef Al-Otaiba went further, penning last week a first-ever op-ed by a top Gulf Arab diplomat for an Israeli newspaper and suggesting that the delicate effort by Israel to achieve normalization with Gulf Arab powers could be in jeopardy.
“Recently, Israeli leaders have promoted excited talk about normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states,” Mr. Otaiba, who is also the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, wrote in the op-ed published in Hebrew by the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
“But Israeli plans for annexation and talk of normalization are a contradiction,” he wrote.
Some analysts argue the Gulf Arabs are insincere in their warnings and that the frustration is running high among some in the region against the Palestinian Authority (PA) for its recent refusals to negotiate with Israel or the Trump administration — essentially setting the stage for an aggressive Israeli annexation move.
Jonathan H. Ferziger, a writer and researcher who covered the Middle East for more than 20 years for Bloomberg News and UPI, argues that Mr. Netanyahu has ample evidence to suspect that Israel’s new friends in the Persian Gulf are “bluffing.”
“The UAE, as well as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, is highly invested in Trump’s ‘Peace to Prosperity’ plan, which the Palestinians summarily rejected,” Mr. Ferziger argued in an article published Friday by Foreign Policy, adding that the empathy such nations once had for PA leader Mahmoud Abbas “is dissipating.”
“Otaiba himself was present at the White House in January when Trump released the [administration’s Middle East peace] proposal, which includes both establishing a demilitarized Palestinian state and allowing Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley and other territory where its settlements sit.”
Neoconservative backers of Israel, meanwhile, say annexation will be worth the risks.
The Jewish Institute for National Security of America argued in a statement circulated Friday that “it would serve as a defensive buffer protecting Israel against attacks from the east and allowing it to hold back the region’s growing disorder and especially Iran’s aggression, thereby advancing U.S. national security interests.”
For his part, Mr. Landis told The Times that “even if there is no large outburst of protest or violence in the Arab World due to the announcement of annexation, the injustice and continued occupation that it will inflict on Palestinians will surely take its toll.”
“The region will remain in a state of turmoil and enmity against the Jewish state and America for decades to come as the Arab World watches the drip-drip of ongoing Palestinian ruination,” he said.