Why Annexation Is the Wrong Move
The Middle East is a hotbed region for contested debate. And yet, conversations about the Middle East often lack nuance — and even the nuanced discussions omit many important details.
Today’s challenge: the State of Israel appears to be moving towards the annexation of the West Bank.
But first, a quick, un-nuanced primer on the West Bank. Indeed, the State of Israel claims that the West Bank is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people, but let us turn the clock back a mere 500 years.
From 1517 to 1917, the Ottoman Empire ruled the area currently referred to as the West Bank. Shortly thereafter, from 1920 to 1947, the area became part of the British Mandate for Palestine. In 1947, the United Nations produced a partition plan for the region (a Jewish State, an Arab State, and an International Zone within Jerusalem) and designated this area as part of the Arab state. However, in 1948, Jordan (then called Transjordan) captured the area during Israel’s War of Independence.
Jordan annexed the area, renaming it the West Bank (or Cisjordan), and it stayed under Jordan’s rule until the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel captured the West Bank during the war, but never annexed it. Control transitioned from Israeli military to semi-civil authority, and continues to remain a hotbed of international debate. Part of the challenge is that (as of three years ago) 12.5% of the population of the West Bank were Israeli “settlers” — Jews living in this contested region.
What would it mean if Israel annexed the West Bank? This disputed territory would once and for all (or at least, for Israel) be considered part of Israel. Full stop. For example, any new construction in the “settlements” currently needing approval by the defense minister and prime minister, would only need a local permitting process following annexation.
Right or wrong, the international community sees settlements (and new construction) as a key obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. As a result, we should indeed have genuine concerns about annexation and the impact it could have on the future of the Jewish state .
This may lead to a further existential crisis. All of a sudden Israel becomes the sole impediment to dialogue and progress. And yet, history teaches us (e.g, the Sinai, southern Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, negotiations over the Golan Heights and Jerusalem) that Israel has been willing to make painful compromises including land withdrawals in pursuit of realistic and sustainable results. And to complicate matters further, some Israelis support annexation of one part of the area but not the other.
Nevertheless, for some of us who are major supporters of Israel, the concept of annexation is overwhelmingly problematic. Though not a true land grab, it is indeed a power play. This is a unilateral moving of the goalposts, so to speak. And we must condemn and reject that. We must struggle to push for a negotiated two-state solution by means of bilateral talks directly between Israelis and the Palestinians. Annexation does certainly hinder that — but another nuance: it does not halt it entirely.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Israeli people remain committed to peace, but a chief problem is that they do not see a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians as an achievable outcome at this point. The Palestinians have often rejected negotiations, and now the Palestinian Authority is saying that security agreements are no longer valid. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now presenting himself as an overt non-partner for peace too.
But still, nothing is for certain. For example, after Israel extended its laws to the Golan Heights, she continued to negotiate with Syria over withdrawal and border adjustments.
We still do not know what actions might be taken in the West Bank. We still do not know if Palestinians will get full rights if there is annexation. And further, we should remain humble enough to understand that there is a long and winding path before any annexation is implemented. The region is volatile, and no moves are predictable.
Nevertheless, I am overwhelmingly disappointed by the annexation path — but punitive measures toward Israel will not get us anywhere. Our method should be “carrots not sticks.” What incentives have there been — for both sides — to come to the table? We need to be advocating and lobbying for such a vehicle.
Those who are genuinely concerned like I am should express such concerns in measured and productive ways that do not empower those who threaten “consequences” or try to impose punitive measures against Israel.
We have to remember that Israel is one of the United States’ greatest and most strategically important allies. The fundamentals of our bilateral relationship need to remain unchanged. We must ensure Congress continues to support measures to keep our two countries safe, secure, and prosperous, and to push back against punitive legislative initiatives, especially those that threaten foreign aid. And we need to ensure that Congress works toward a path of peace.
Punitive actions towards Israel will only serve to harden an Israeli public already frustrated by a lack of viable peace options, and still facing significant threats from regional adversaries like Iran and Hezbollah. The irony is that reducing or threatening to reduce our support for Israel in meeting its legitimate security requirements will not only harm our most reliable Middle East ally, but undermine our own national interests and objectives.
Everyone who cares about the US-Israel relationship has an opinion on annexation. Mine is clear: unilateral action does not serve the interests of peace and prosperity. It will not end terror against and discord among Israelis. It will not end oppression of the Palestinians. But ultimately, the fundamentals of the US-Israel relationship are too valuable for any single Israeli action to compromise them — and the same is true of the Palestinians’ actions.
Our country’s support for Israel is not a favor to them, but something that is deeply strategically aligned with our own interests. That is what we need to remind Israel; that is what we need to remind our elected officials; and that is what we need to remind ourselves.
Rabbi Avi Olitzky is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.