Palestine. “Formal annexation won’t change anything on the ground”

Robert Malley, former Middle East adviser to Barack Obama, remains doubtful about the scope of the annexation project presented on 1 July by Benyamin Netanyahu, considering that “the Palestinian territories have been de facto annexed for decades”. While in the United States the debates within the Trump administration and among the Democrats reveal new fault lines with Israel, the European Union seems to hesitate between recognising a Palestinian state or bowing to a fait accompli.

June 27, 2020. — Palestinians and Israelis demonstrate together against the annexation plan in Almog, south of Jericho
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP

Sylvain Cypel.With Netanyahu probably about to announce Israeli “annexations” of West Bank territory, the affair is looking unexpectedly complicated. Why is that?

Robert Malley.— That’s right. Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government partners, former chiefs of staff Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, think the annexations should be carried out in full agreement with the regional states, which is obviously impossible, and that they should be accompanied by some kind of Israeli peace initiative, however modest. In fact, the most virulent opposition to Netanyahu comes not from that camp but from the extreme right, for whom an annexation of whatever magnitude accompanied by even formal acceptance of a future Palestinian state, is worse than the status quo under which Israel has de facto sovereignty over all the Palestinian territories.

Why, they ask, should we pay that price? Others believe that the annexation should involve all the territories included in the “Trump plan.” But we shouldn’t exaggerate the significance of these objections. From the beginning I have believed that Netanyahu will go ahead with annexations to help him go down in Israeli history, and because it serves his current political purposes.

S. C.The White House itself seems to be divided, between solid supporters of Netanyahu, and others, like Jared Kushner, who want to hold back the annexations in order to keep good relations with the Gulf monarchies.

R. M.— There’s always been a debate at the core of the Trump administration between those, like Kushner, who perhaps naively believe that the Trump plan could relaunch a “peace process,” and those, like the US ambassador in Israel David Friedman, for whom this plan in reality serves to advance ideological ambitions which are part of the DNA of the political trend in power in Israel, and to change the givens of the Israeli-Palestinian equation. For the first group, it’s important to avoid alienating the White House’s Arab allies. For the second—and Friedman has said it more or less explicitly—it’s important to make the Palestinians understand that this land will never belong to them, so they should shed any illusions.

At the end of the day, it’s Trump who will decide. I think that he’s liable to be more open to Friedman’s line, which would enhance his support with his electoral base, especially the evangelicals. But often within an administration, a tendency towards compromise between factions wins the day. If Netanyahu announces the annexation just of the big settlements and part of the Jordan Valley, he and Trump might think that it would survive international public opinion as everything else has done in the past, because all the peace plans envisage the big settlement blocs being annexed by Israel. They’ll be betting that Arab threats of reprisal will once again remain rhetorical.

S. C. Big or small, could the annexations become an issue in the US presidential election?

R. M.— Two of the foreign policy issues that Trump intends to play on in his campaign concern the Middle East: support for Israeli annexation and the Iranian nuclear affair. If the annexations happen, Trump will accuse the Democrats of abandoning their ally. And he will portray Biden as a false friend of Israel, and as being soft on Iran. That won’t win him a single extra Jewish vote, and will only have a very marginal impact on the election.

Trump has said he’ll only support annexation if the two big parties in power, Likud and Blue and White, agree on its scope and its modes of implementation. Can you imagine Trump announcing that in the absence of internal agreement in Israel he’s dropping the issue until further notice? Trump certainly won’t withdraw his plan, which has broad support in Israel especially among the two big parties in power. On the other hand, it’s possible that he might say: “As long as the two parties remain at odds, I’ll just wait.” We’ll soon know. But the fact is that Trump barely follows the internal Israeli debates. On the other hand, he really believes that with his “peace plan” he may go down in history as the man who pursued a new vision. So the current situation benefits the annexationists. If Trump was sure of being re-elected comfortably, he might tell himself: “I can wait.” But the opinion polls are now very bad for him, and there’s a certain air of panic in his inner circle. If he wants to go down in history, he will be obliged to approve the annexations before the November elections.

S. C.At the moment it looks as though Trump will lose. If that happens, how much of his Middle East policy will survive in the US?

R. M.— Let’s start with another question: What if there is no annexation? The prevailing situation, before the annexation announcement, is not as though we were a step away from a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For decades, the Palestinian territories have been annexed de facto, without it being de jure. With or without formal annexation, and whatever its scale, that will change nothing fundamental on the ground nor in the lives of the Palestinians. What we should avoid, if by some miracle there is no annexation, is to heave a sigh of relief and think, we can go back to the status quo ante. Because in reality the two-state solution is already moribund. That’s what we should bear in mind.

S. C.What could Biden do on this issue if he’s elected?

R. M.— Biden is very clearly opposed to the Trump plan. He has announced it, he will reverse some of the decisions. Certainly not on the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem, but he will reopen the US Consulate on the Palestinian side. He will also try to reopen the PLO office in Washington. He will renew the financial support to the Palestinians cancelled by Trump. Will he reverse support for the expected annexations? If they are major, including all the Jordan Valley and the vast majority of the settlements, it’s probable that a Biden administration will not recognise them. But it’s important to bear one major factor in mind: the Palestinian issue will not be a priority for a Democratic administration. Biden is above all a realist. He has always thought that the Israelis but also the Palestinians, of whom he takes a very dim view, are very far from any possible agreement, and that to try to get them to overcome their differences, in the current state of affairs, is something of a waste of effort. Barring some unexpected development, I can’t see his administration engaging in major initiatives. Biden doesn’t believe in it.

S. C.More than 120 American human and civil rights organisations have written to Biden calling on him to “support equality between Israelis and Palestinians.” Democratic congressmen very close to AIPAC [the pro-Israeli lobby in the US], such as Ted Deutsch and Brad Scheider, have signed a petition against annexation. Are we seeing a fundamental change in the Democratic position towards Israel?

R. M.— First of all, I note that the loudest opposition in the US to the annexation announcement has not come from the Democratic left, but from people like those you mention, elected fervent supporters of Israel, and also people like Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute [WINEP, a think-tank very close to AIPAC]. These people are aware that a debate is growing inside the Democratic Party, where more and more people are thinking that Israel should be treated like any other state, and that it is pursuing policies fundamentally opposed to their values and to US interests. Among them there are even some who believe that we should start cutting military aid to Israel. This is a very new discourse. They are still far from being a majority, but their number is growing.

And you can see a whole new generation in the young people elected to congress. They all say: “Look out! Annexation will destroy what we believe in, the possibility of two states living side-by-side in peace.” Even a limited annexation would remove the mask which was protecting Israel. Basically, the question which disturbs these people is: “Why would Israel annex territories which it already controls?” and I would add: Without paying the slightest political price. Annexation complicates things. For them, the status quo is perfect for Israel. That’s why some of them are panicking. Because we’re starting to hear a new tune in part of the Democratic left: “Let them go ahead and annex! That will tear aside the veil, and everybody will see Israel’s true face.” For Israel’s Democratic supporters, it’s a disaster. That’s why some Democratic officials, including some who support Israel more or less unconditionally, are now increasingly distancing themselves from its policies. That could be significant, also in Israel, not right now but in the long run.

S. C.Might the European Union sanction Israel?

R. M.— Some Europeans envisage that. Not on the level of the EU, where there would not be unanimity, but some of the countries might take measures, and the Union could adopt sanctions in areas where unanimity is not required, such as commercial or cooperation agreements. But above all, a new idea is currently emerging: the de jure recognition of the Palestinian state by the EU’s members. If that happens, it will raise an important question: would such recognition be abstract, recognising the principle of a state—or would it specifically recognise a sovereign state within the 1967 borders, with some eventual minor modifications? The Europeans are discussing that. I think Netanyahu is betting that in the long run, they will bow to the fait accompli, as has always been the case so far. But Gantz and Ashkenazi are also in touch with the Europeans. That could be significant, depending on what Europe does.

S. C.Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli national security adviser, foresees cataclysmic consequences should annexation happen. Israel’s delegitimisation internationally, a new wave of violence, a war including Hezbollah, a reinforcing of the Middle East “Axis of Resistance” to Israel, and ultimately a negative turnaround in US policy towards Israel. He concludes: “The wise do not play Russian roulette with the future of their nation.” On the other hand, many Israeli commentators imagine a different scenario in which, given Palestinian political weakness and waning international interest in the conflict, the most likely outcome would be that the annexations would not arouse any more hostility than the earlier measures which Trump supported. What do you think?

R. M.— We’ve got so used to expecting a reaction from the Arab states to Israeli faits accomplis which never produces anything that we imagine it will be the same with annexations. So we conclude that Israel wins, and there’s not much to be done about it. I understand that, even if I believe that at some unpredictable moment, this theory will be disproved. But when will that reaction come? What will trigger it? We just don’t know. The fact is that the logic of Israeli policy is territorial expansion. Why would it stop? So I don’t believe in a war with the Arab states, nor in an attack by Hezbollah on Israel in the near future. But the region is a powder keg, and the moment will come when some event will trigger an explosion. Unfortunately, one can understand the Israeli logic, because so far it has systematically won. And until a catastrophe comes along, it will be hard to convince the Israelis that one is on the way.