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Monday, 27 June 2022
Israeli annexation or Palestinian revival?
Ian Black

Have Donald Trump and Binyamin Netanyahu inadvertently done the Palestinians a favour? Husam Zomlot, ambassador to the UK, certainly thinks so. Trump’s “deal of the century” and Netanyahu’s closely-related plans for annexation of parts of the West Bank, are combining, Zomlot argues, to revive his people’s fading cause.

 From July 1st, according to the coalition agreement between the Likud leader and Benny Gantz, of the centrist Blue and White party, application of Israeli law to parts of what they call “Judea and Samaria” will be permitted, in coordination with Washington. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, has clarified however, that it is up to the Israelis to decide how to proceed.

 It is unclear what will actually happen. Trump’s original plan, unveiled in January, authorized Israel to annex the Jordan Valley. King Abdullah has warned of a “massive conflict” if it went ahead. Last week it was reported that Yossi Cohen, head of the Mossad intelligence service and a close Netanyahu confidante, had travelled to Amman to assure the king that it would not happen.

 Other scenarios are more limited: settlements near Jerusalem – Maale Adumim is the main one – could be annexed. Gush Etzion, further south in the West Bank, is another. Annexation of those would have the advantage of appealing to the centre-right Israeli voters who back both Netanyahu and Gantz. Past peace talks with the Palestinians have been based, after all, on the principle of land swaps.

 But if any annexation goes ahead it would be, by definition, unilateral. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, rejected Trump’s plan even before it was unveiled in January. That was hardly surprising given the American leader’s brazen bias to the Israeli side: he moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, closed down the PLO mission to Washington (where Zomlot was ambassador), cut off aid to UNRWA and recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.

 The idea that on the basis of that record of hostility any Palestinian would support the plan is simply absurd. Plus the fact that David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, had a long record of supporting extremist settlers. Furthermore, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, shares Trump’s transactional instincts, rewarding the Palestinians for the loss of sovereignty by generous financial support.

 International reactions to the Israeli threat have been overwhelmingly negative. Antonio Gutteres, the UN secretary-general, urged Netanyahu not to proceed, not only because annexation would undermine a two-state solution and infringe international law but also because it would de-stabilize an already volatile region. The UN chief was too diplomatic to name them – but Iran and Hizbullah would both benefit.

 Apart from Jordan – which reportedly opposed any annexation, big or small - Arab reactions have been muted. Egypt has been strikingly silent. Still the UAE, the most advanced of the Gulf States in “below the horizon” links with Israel, has spoken out. Its ambassador to the US published an article in a mass-circulation Hebrew daily urging readers to understand that “normalization” – still a dirty word in Arabic -  could not continue if annexation went ahead. Qatar, which provides financial support for Hamas in the Gaza Strip, has signaled that that would not continue.

 Palestinians are understandably sceptical. Khalil Shikaki, the Ramallah-based pollster, found in his most recent survey of public opinion that annexation would not lead to serious consequences for Israel.

 Still, if reports about Netanyahu’s reassuring message to King Abdullah are true, that is a sign that regional and international pressure may have succeeded – at least partially. But even more limited annexation may trigger confrontations. It could lead to the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, or popular protests against it, or a new intifada, as the clear message of annexation is to reject commitment to negotiation. It could also lead to PLO de-recognition of Israel – one of the greatest achievements of the Oslo accords of 1993.

 Netanyahu, in short, is playing with fire – and he is widely interpreted as doing so cynically to serve his own interests – in two ways: neutralize looming corruption charges and at the same time ensure his legacy as the country’s longest-serving prime minister because he “applied Israeli law” to the heart of the biblical land of Israel – and simultaneously dealt the Palestinians a blow from which they will find it hard to recover.

 Unless, of course, annexation  leads the world to re-focus on the Palestinian cause. Seven European members of the UN security council, including Britain, France and Germany, warned that: “acquisition of territory by force … must have commensurate consequences” and called on European leaders to “act decisively”. Other developments include changing attitudes of American Jews who recoil at the idea that Israel would become effectively an apartheid state – with different rights for the two people who live under its rule.

 It is hard to be optimistic, but if Netanyahu goes too far, it may just lead to a renewed and more vigorous challenge to the status quo that has lasted since 1967. “We Palestinians are coming back,“ as Husam Zomlot predicted, “after years of marginalization.” Let’s hope he is not indulging in wishful thinking…..