What would Israel annexing the West Bank mean?
Benjamin Netanyahu has announced the time is ripe for his country to permanently seize Palestinian territory by annexing swathes of the West Bank.
With a US “vision for peace” blueprint largely backing up his expansionist ambitions, the Israeli prime minister intends to make the explosive move with the support of Donald Trump – a man Netanyahu describes as the “greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House”.
However, much uncertainty remains around when, how – or even if – Netanyahu will push forward with annexation and what effect it could have.
What does ‘annexation’ mean?
It’s a term that can summon up images of a seemingly bygone colonial era, where states fought for the spoils of war. Yet annexation had continued into the modern era. Indonesia annexed East Timor in 1975, Iraq briefly annexed Kuwait in 1990, Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Israel, too, has joined the club. In 1980, it annexed majority Palestinian East Jerusalem, and a year later, it annexed the Golan Heights, captured from Syria.
In short, annexation is when a country declares that a piece of land outside its borders is part of the state. Often this is done after military occupation and whether the people living there want it or not. International law is fairly clear about annexation – it is illegal.
What precisely does Israel want to annex?
Netanyahu has made repeated promises during the past year to annex, or “apply sovereignty”, to different areas of the West Bank, a chunk of land Israel captured from Jordan in 1967.
In April last year, Netanyahu said he planned to annex Jewish settlements, outposts in the West Bank where hundreds of thousands of Israelis live, to global condemnation. In September, the Israeli leader added he would also annex the Jordan Valley, which makes up to one-third of the West Bank and borders Jordan.
Doesn’t Israel already control that land?
Yes. Israel has run a military occupation for more than half a century that has created a situation in which Palestinian officials say there is already de facto annexation.
The country has deepened its grip over the land, squeezing many of the roughly 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians into urban enclaves. It has also established a robust civilian presence. Foreign tourists visiting Israel on bus trips to the Dead Sea drive right through the Palestinian territories without realising they have left the country. West Bank road signs often display Hebrew and frequently ignore Palestinian communities, pointing out Israeli settlements instead. Many factories, petrol stations and shops are Israeli-run.
So why now?
Ultranationalists in Israel see Trump’s presidency as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to carry out measures that were long considered taboo in Washington.
Going against decades of US foreign policy, Trump has slashed aid to Palestinians, cut diplomatic ties and declared the city of Jerusalem – part of which Palestinians claim – as Israel’s capital.
With Trump’s White House tenancy potentially due to expire in a November election, much of the far-right in Israel believes now is the time for action.
Is it definitely going to happen?
Annexation was a key pledge made by Netanyahu during election campaigns over the past year. Under a unity government deal, the Israeli leader has pushed to bring plans for annexation to the cabinet for discussion as soon as 1 July.
However, weeks from that date Netanyahu has still not articulated exactly what he plans to do.
Netanayhu’s unofficial biographer, Anshel Pfeffer, believes the 70-year-old leader will never go ahead with annexation, which has already attracted considerable international opposition.
“It’s not going to happen because Netanyahu doesn’t really want annexation. At least not now,” he wrote. “Netanyahu had focused on the promise of annexation as a lever to bring out the right-wing base to the ballot box … But Netanyahu doesn’t need it to win an election anymore.”
What will the effect be if it does go ahead?
Jordan’s king has hinted that an Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement would be in jeopardy. European nations have suggested they may attempt to impose economic sanctions on Israel. Israeli-Palestinian violence could erupt.
In practice, annexation could happen with a vote in Israel’s parliament but with almost no changes on the ground.
Many say the move would simply be the formal realisation of what Israel critics, and many of its supporters, have said for decades – that Israeli governments have never been serious about relinquishing lands occupied in 1967.
Certainly, if Israel formally declares land as part of its state, it would make it even more difficult to give it up in any future agreement. Many who still support the idea of a “two-state solution” say annexation would be the killing blow, although others argue that ideal perished years ago.
One significant change may be one of perception. Israel’s half-century occupation of the West Bank has long been referred to as something that is temporary. That has allowed Israel to deflect thorny questions around why Israeli settlers in the West Bank have citizenship, while Palestinians do not.
If Israel was to annex so much of the West Bank that it would effectively and permanently control the land and all the people in it, then questions around inequality under the law might be more difficult to answer.
Benjamin Pogrund, a South African-born Israeli writer and former ally of Nelson Mandela, has long argued against the use of the term “apartheid” to describe Israel’s treatment of West Bank Palestinians.
But in an interview with the Times of Israel last week, he said annexation would change his assessment.
“[At] least it has been a military occupation. Now we are going to put other people under our control and not give them citizenship. That is apartheid. That is an exact mirror of what apartheid was [in South Africa].”