The Israeli government is on a reckless mission to extend permanently its control over the West Bank by annexing by force all or parts of the occupied territory. Developments over the past year, facilitated by the permissive attitude of the Trump Administration, are particularly alarming.
While proposals for annexation of all or part of the West Bank had previously been confined to the extreme right-wing fringe of the Israeli political spectrum, members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party are now submitting such bills to the Knesset. In December 2017, Likud incorporated into its party platform a resolution that would effectively extend Israeli sovereignty over West Bank settlements. And at the direction of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home Party, the government is moving to apply Israeli laws in the West Bank – to Israeli settlers only.
Annexation by force is a blatant violation of one of the most fundamental precepts of international law. This is one of several reasons for Israel to abandon this treacherous course, which would deal a death blow to the prospects of a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Why bother with international law? After all, it is not held in high esteem by the current Netanyahu’s government. That notwithstanding, international law is the glue which holds the international community together. No state disavows it and any state that does risks becoming an international outlaw.
International law is not some new-fangled concept dreamed up by 20th-century liberals. Legal historians credit Egyptian pharaohs with producing the first treaties, which are the building blocks of international law, and date the first peace treaty between Israel and Egypt to 776 BCE.
Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, recognized the importance of pursuing international legal approval for the Jewish state he sought to build. In his words, “Our first object is . . . supremacy, assured to us by international law, over a portion of the globe sufficiently large to satisfy our just requirements.” His object was realized: Israel owes its sovereign standing to the United Nations, which passed Resolution 181, calling for partition of the British Mandate for Palestine into Arab and Jewish states.
Like all UN member states, Israel is obligated to adhere to UN Security Council resolutions. One of the most important is UNSC Resolution 242, unanimously adopted following the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. It emphasizes “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and calls on Israel to withdraw its troops from territory occupied during the war.
If Israel annexes all or portions of the West Bank, it will compound its existing violation of international law and commit a double illegality. As it is, Israeli settlements are illegal under international law. According to the International Court of Justice (and echoed in longstanding US policy), the West Bank is under “belligerent occupation.” According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupier may not transfer its population to territory under occupation.
Annexation of the settlements would double their existing illegality because a country cannot lawfully annex territory acquired by war.
Discussions of the legal status of annexation usually begin with a reference to the Stimson Doctrine, named after the 1932 proclamation by US Secretary of State Henry Stimson, according to which the United States refused to recognize Japan’s forceful annexation of Manchuria. Most recently, the international community condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and this resulted in the imposition of sanctions on Russia by the United States and the European Union.
Annexation of part or all of the West Bank would be disastrous in myriad ways. Foremost among them, Israel would jeopardize its prospects as a Jewish state and a democracy, while foreclosing on the possibility of peace with a future state of Palestine and diplomatic relations with the Arab world. Simultaneously, Israel would jettison any claim to being a law-abiding member of the family of nations.
Given the high stakes, will West Bank annexation finally break the silence of much of the American Jewish establishment about Israeli government policies?
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Peter Weiss is an international lawyer and a member of the Executive Committee of Americans for Peace Now.
Dr. Debra Shushan is Director of Policy and Government Relations at Americans for Peace Now.