The Dishonest Debate about ‘Annexation’


By the beginning of July, Israel and the United States are set to make a decision about implementing a key aspect of the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan. Should the U.S. approve, Israel may well — as the scheme called for — extend its law to cover West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley. That has the international community, American Jewry and leading politicians here in an uproar.

Yet even by the debased standards of contemporary politics, the debate about this idea is largely disingenuous.

Israel is being accused of annexing territory in violation of international law. Annexation is the incorrect word to describe what is being contemplated. Annexing means taking land that belongs to someone else. Whether or not you think Israelis should be there, the West Bank (a term that is geographically nonsensical but has stuck to the territories) never belonged to the Palestinians or any other sovereign nation since Turkey and then Britain possessed them. But since “annexation” implies Israeli wrongdoing and is easier to use than the more cumbersome “applying Israeli law to disputed territory,” it continues to be employed.

Nor is true that international law is being violated. The San Remo Agreement of 1920 and the League of Nations Mandate both guaranteed the right of Jews to settle in these lands. Until a peace agreement is signed dividing it up, they remain disputed, not “Palestinian” lands stolen by Israel.

The main argument floated by the Jewish left and Democratic Party critics of both President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is equally wrongheaded. They assert that the move will make a two-state solution impossible and doom Israel to being an apartheid state.

The apathy about the issue on the part of most Israelis and Palestinians about this issue gives the lie to this claim. The two-state solution died in the explosions of the second intifada. The Palestinians have repeated rejected offers of statehood and peace by Israelis for the last 20 years.

Neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas want peace because it would require them to end their century-long war on Zionism. Should the Palestinians ever change their minds, they can still have a demilitarized independent state even after the Trump plan is implemented.

Most settlements would be kept by Israel even in a theoretical peace agreement that the Palestinians clearly don’t want. “Annexing” them won’t upset Israel’s demographic balance nor does it sustain the canard about “apartheid” since it won’t change much about the lives of either Jews or Arabs.

More sober observers, like Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi, are anxious that it will sink hopes for a rapprochement with the Arab world. They accept the notion put forward by a diplomat from the United Arab Emirates that the choice is “annexation or normalization.”

This threat lacks credibility since their embrace of Israel as a tacit ally against Iran is based on self-interest, not affection for Zionism. As with Trump’s moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, they may fuss but they won’t return to open hostility, let alone lift a finger for a Palestinian state they don’t want any more than most Israelis.

Moreover, the expectation that most Arab states will embrace full normalization is a pipe dream. Saudi Arabia, whose legitimacy is rooted in its role as guardian of Islamic holy places, will never exchange ambassadors with Israel even if it looks on it as an ally. The same is true of most other Arab nations. Their fears of the rampant anti-Semitism of the Arab world will never allow full diplomatic relations even as they continue to cooperate on both defense and trade under the table.

Equally unfounded is the worry that it will undermine Israel’s standing abroad or give ammunition to the BDS movement and make the Jewish state’s defenders on college campuses much more difficult.

BDS groups currently traffic in lies. Their post-“annexation” claims won’t be any more truthful. Israel is already being falsely accused and all too many liberal Jews seem to lack the will to stand up to these canards. Some even endorse them regardless of Israel actions. Just as repeated peace offers and territorial withdrawals didn’t make Israel any more popular in the past — actually, as Oslo proved, the opposite is true — so, too, refraining from this move won’t disarm its critics or strengthen the spines of its Jewish defenders.

There is an argument to be made that maintaining an unpleasant status quo is the most sensible option, and I have said as much in this space. But it is a mistaken notion that Israel will do great damage to itself by applying its law to areas that it never plans to leave, doing so with the backing of a U.S. peace plan, and eschewing the illusions and magical thinking that characterized past American efforts.

“Annexation” will change little about either the conflict or the desultory efforts of some American Jews to refute the false claims of its detractors. To the contrary, it will be one more reminder to the Palestinians of the costs of intransigence. Doing so bolsters the only realistic, if still unlikely, path to peace.

Jonathan S. Tobin  iseditor in chief of and a columnist for the New York Post. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.