Historical Guilt Will Not Stop Israel from Annexing the West Bank

Joseph Dana

AFP Photo: Jaafar Ashtiyeh

Israel will begin annexing portions of the occupied West Bank in July. The plan, however, has been met with opposition from an unusual quarter: the settler movement. Why? The tangled answer lies in the sordid history of Israel’s de facto annexation of Palestinian land right from at the beginning of the conflict.

Before we get there, some more recent history is useful. Since 1967, when Israel first occupied the West Bank, every Israeli leader has shied from formal annexation to avoid having to extend citizenship to Palestinians and at the same time creating an explicitly apartheid state. 

With Donald Trump’s “deal of the century,” this is about to change. The US has indicated it will support Israel’s annexation of roughly 30 percent of the West Bank, including the fertile Jordan Valley, if Israel accepts in its entirety the Trump peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unveiled earlier this year. This means Israel must hold direct negotiations with the Palestinians for at least four years and commit to the creation of a Palestinian state with part of East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel has not yet officially agreed to these conditions and so the upcoming annexation is taking place unilaterally. 

But that hasn’t stopped the Israeli settler movement from voicing some of the fiercest opposition, both to the annexation plan and to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. The Yesha Council, an umbrella organization for settlements in the West Bank, has said it rejects the prospect of a future Palestinian state. Yesha Council’s chairman, David Elhayani, said Trump and his senior advisor and chief architect of the peace plans, Jared Kushner, “have proven in their plan that they are not friends of the state of Israel.” 

Behind the disagreements within the political right lies the fact that Israel has been practicing a de facto annexation since 1967. Israel has invested untold amounts to build infrastructure designed to make a Palestinian state unviable. From roads to electricity lines to cell phone coverage, the development of the West Bank has been driven by the policy of de facto annexation. Palestinian villages that previously dotted the hilly landscape have been swallowed up by Israeli settlements, leaving only disconnected Palestinian communities that are easy for the Israeli military to control. This is a divide-and-conquer tactic writ large. 

The project has been so successful that Israel has managed both to expand the settler population and to tighten control over Palestinian life without incurring serious international condemnation. But if the formal annexation occurs next month, it will open up Israel to a host of unavoidable comparisons with apartheid policies and possible action from the European Union and other international bodies. 

Given the potential downside and the division within the right wing, why is Netanyahu pushing ahead? One explanation offered by the Israeli analyst, Anshel Pfeffer, is that “Netanyahu will annex parts of the West Bank only if he is convinced that it furthers his longtime plan of pushing the Palestinian issue off the global agenda and achieving an unofficial normalization and an anti-Iran alliance between Israel and the main Arab powers.”  

That is indeed his motivation, but annexation also is certain to magnify the Palestinian issue, not minimize it. So, what gives? Answer: he believes that annexation will eventually remove all Israeli responsibility for Palestinians and for making peace. 

Back to the sordid past. Archival documents uncovered by Israeli historian Benny Morris show what he called widespread “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians from their native land during the 1948 war that led to the founding of Israel. What is intriguing is that the leaders of the nascent state didn’t “finish the job.” What stopped them was guilt, and so the terrible task was left half-done. In Morris’ view, that inability to finish the job is a source of the problems today – a horrible idea at so many levels.

Today, something similar is at work in the West Bank. Throughout 50 years of de facto annexation, Israeli officials have been afraid of formalizing it. Again, this is guilt of doing truly terrible things. They would rather maintain continued control over Palestinians, avoid any sustainable (or equitable) solution to the conflict and keep international condemnation at bay. (Guilt, apparently, comes in degrees.)

The bureaucrats aside, there is plenty of support for annexation among Israelis. The fact is, the Israeli conscience never has been much troubled by the acts of injustice against Palestinians, starting with removing them from their land.

The US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, articulated the feelings of many Israelis when he said the conflict would resolve itself when “Palestinians become Canadians,” implying that the removal of Palestinians altogether would be a good thing for Israel. The thinking here is that the Palestinians will one day simply give up or dissolve quietly into history. To help this along, Israel would make conditions for Palestinians so bad that they have no choice but to leave.

Hence, crank up annexation. And when the Palestinians have left, responsibility for solving the conflict would no longer be an issue since there would be no more conflict. So, in fact, the Yesha Council needn’t worry. The problem with this idea is that the Palestinians rightly have other ideas about their land

Israeli politicians love to say they have no partner for peace in the Palestinians. In fact, it’s the Palestinians who don’t have a partner in Israel. They’ve never had one.

Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.