The stated intention of the far-right government of Israel to move forward with annexation of large portions of the West Bank has come as a shock to some — but it’s a step that has deep roots and is the virtually inevitable culmination of a process that began five decades ago and has advanced unimpeded by any effective opposition.
It began within a few months of Israel’s stunning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, when several groups of young Israeli “pioneers” set up small agricultural outposts in the lightly populated Jordan Valley. Averring that these were temporary paramilitary installations that could be readily removed, they elicited little international attention.
With the advent of Menahem Begin and the Likud in 1977, and under intense pressure from young religious zealots, the Labor Party’s policy of restricting settlement to the periphery of the West Bank was abandoned, and Jewish settlements began to proliferate in the Palestinian heartland of “Judea and Samaria.” Concerned about the destructive impact of escalating settlement activity on efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians (aka “The Peace Process”), but loathe to confront Israel, the U.S. Government regularly criticized these activities.
On rare occasions the United States acted more resolutely. In 1979, the U.S., despite its close relationship with Israel, abstained from a United Nations Security Council resolution stating that the settlements had “no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving … peace in the Middle East,” thus allowing the resolution to pass. In his famous June 2009 Cairo speech, President Obama himself declared: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”
But the abstention and Obama’s pronouncement were not accompanied by tangible action. Unsurprisingly, they were generally ignored or rebuffed by the leaders of the Israeli right, as settlement expansion continued apace (with one exception, the successful threat by President George H.W. Bush to withhold loan guarantees). Today, settlers in the West Bank and east Jerusalem number more than 600,000.
The election of Donald Trump wrought a radical change in 50 years of U.S. policy. Far from opposing rampant settlement expansion, even rhetorically, under Trump we have arrived at a hitherto inconceivable situation in which the U.S. ambassador enthusiastically endorses it. Shockingly, the U.S. is now an active accomplice to the impending annexation, a central element in Trump’s so-called “Deal of the Century.”
Through it all, Congress has remained largely a passive bystander. But today, Congress has one last opportunity to deflect Israel from this ultimately self-destructive course. There is still time for Israel to desist from crossing the red line of annexation and to seek a more constructive path forward.
It is urgent that responsible, pro-Israel lawmakers make clear that annexation would be a reckless step that would have damaging long-term ramifications for the region and for the U.S.-Israel relationship. By condemning millions of Palestinians to live permanently in Bantustan-like pockets of territory surrounded by Israel and under military rule, annexation would destroy our shared democratic values and threaten Israel’s own long-term future as a homeland for the Jewish people.
Now is the time for our community and congressional leaders to speak out and send a signal to Israeli leaders that annexation does not have bipartisan support and cannot be pursued without real consequences.
There are several steps lawmakers can take. First, they must make clear that the U.S. security assistance cannot be used to fund annexation or other steps to further entrench the occupation, and that neither Congress nor the next administration will any longer provide diplomatic cover for legitimate international condemnation that Israel will inevitably face. To send a signal that they will stand by their values, Democrats must ensure that their 2020 party platform include clear recognition of Palestinian rights alongside strong support for Israeli security, and include explicit opposition to annexation, settlement expansion and ongoing occupation.
We face a very uncertain future in both Israel and the United States, but given Trump’s unpopularity and Netanyahu’s legal and political woes, it’s very possible that by 2021 we will have put the Trump and Netanyahu eras behind us. But we cannot be complacent. We must start laying the groundwork for a better future now, and prevent them both from wreaking further damage that would have ramifications for generations to come. Those of us who care about Israel as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people, who care about Palestinian rights and dignity, and who care about a healthy U.S.-Israel relationship rooted in shared interests and values, must demand action from our leaders.
Gil Kulick is a member of the executive committee of J Street-NYC.