Annexation Would Undermine 70 Years of Israeli Foreign Policy
As a reported July 1 annexation deadline looms, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a fateful opportunity to write his foreign policy legacy. Should he decide to annex even part of the West Bank, he will jeopardize his own foreign policy strategy — as well as more than seven decades of Israeli doctrine.
Despite the many variations in policy between successive prime ministers, Israeli foreign policy has consistently revolved around five overarching goals: normalization; pursuing or maintaining regional stability through a cold peace with Jordan; improving Israel’s standing at the United Nations; sustaining strong alliances with Western powers; and finally, cultivating a strong and bipartisan strategic partnership with the United States. A decision to annex would undermine each of these objectives and do lasting damage to Israel overseas — in addition to other negative impacts that Israel would face at home.
Israeli leaders have long sought normalized ties with various countries. Netanyahu has made marked progress in Israel’s quest for normalization in the Middle East. He has carefully cultivated ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Sultanate of Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Annexation would render Israel politically radioactive in the eyes of these new partners, halting and likely reversing Netanyahu and his predecessors’ progress on this front.
In a recent op-ed in Yedioth Ahronoth, Yousef Al-Otaiba, Emirati Ambassador to the United States, warned that “Israeli plans for annexation and talk of normalization are a contradiction.” He added, “Annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic, and cultural ties with the Arab world and with the UAE.” UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed tweeted a pointed rejection of annexation, calling it an “illegal move.”
Applying sovereignty in the West Bank would similarly imperil the stability of Israel’s cold peace with Jordan. Israel sought a détente with Jordan for decades and has enjoyed the comforts of cold peace since 1994. Despite some challenging moments, Israel has maintained its relationship with the Hashemite Kingdom. Yet King Abdullah recently stated, “If Israel really annexed the West Bank in July, it would lead to a massive conflict” with Jordan.
All the while, annexation would set back Israel’s hard work at the United Nations by decades. In recent years, Israel’s emissaries to the UN have labored to narrow the margins of defeat on anti-Israel measures, while also cultivating quiet ties with unexpected partners. Outgoing Israeli ambassador Danny Danon is proud of this recent trend in voting patterns, and has touted it as one of his accomplishments. Applying sovereignty would all but guarantee a rapid reversal of that shift, along with a litany of measures against Israel in various committees.
Annexation would also sabotage Israel’s longstanding interest in maintaining solid alliances with Western powers. Israeli ties with Germany and France in particular have been useful; both countries have sold crucial military equipment to Israel and been important trade partners.
But the specter of annexation might mean Jerusalem can no longer count on Berlin or Paris. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas released a joint statement with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh opposing Netanyahu’s possible plan. Adding insult to injury, a statement from the French Foreign Ministry cautioned that “This could not be without consequences for the European Union’s relations with Israel.”
Finally, a decision to apply sovereignty in the West Bank would create unprecedented instability with Israel’s most important partner, the United States. That relationship has withstood tumultuous moments under Democratic and Republican presidents alike. However, the bipartisan foundations of the relationship have shown cracks in recent years.
Since the Obama administration’s pursuit of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, the relationship has become increasingly partisan. And the Trump administration has politicized its ties with Israel like no prior presidency. Coupled with anti-Israel trends within the Democratic Party, annexation could accelerate and strengthen these political forces.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is a polarizing figure, but he clearly is a shrewd strategist. He has embraced all five of these strategic goals in his career. He has touted progress towards each as major achievements and has even used them in campaigns. He is clearly aware of the many drawbacks of annexation.
Critics argue that annexation will unfold like US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Many pundits predicted major political consequences that never came to fruition. But annexation is more than a de jure recognition of a de facto reality. It is a statement about the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ultimately, threatening any one of the five tenets of Israeli foreign policy on its own could be seen as a reasonable, calculated risk — even for a prime minister who is extremely risk-averse. Taken together, they amount to an overwhelming case against annexation — and that’s only on the foreign policy front.
At its core, Netanyahu’s talk of annexation is political gamesmanship. That is a dangerous game for Israel to play, one that may jeopardize 72 years of Israeli strategy and tireless efforts by its diplomats over all those decades.
Zachary Shapiro is a publishing Adjunct at The MirYam Institute and a master’s candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was previously Research Associate for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel-focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.