Ever since the Israeli government unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem on June 28, 1967, three weeks after the June 5th Israeli occupation, consecutive Israeli governments have refrained from any attempts at further upsetting the international community by pursuing additional annexation legislation. It is no coincidence that for 54 years Israeli governments from the right to the left, from the hawks to the doves have avoided using annexation laws as part of their policy or strategy.
For one thing, annexing areas you already occupy make little difference, unless it is recognized by a major power. Such a move only gains importance if countries recognize the act. In the case of Jerusalem, for example, not a single country in the world, including Israel’s most consistently supportive ally, the U.S., has recognized the annexation of East Jerusalem. Successive U.S. officials have seen in such a recognition an act predetermining the outcome of peace negotiations. Even after the most pro-Israeli American president to date, Donald Trump, moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Washington has stayed quiet about East Jerusalem. It is true that the Trump administration has recognized Israel’s other annexation, namely that of the Golan Heights. In the case of the Golan, however, there isn’t as much attention or conflict as there is on the Palestinian front and the area is home to only a small number of Syrians — not that this excuses the decision.
Regardless of the Jerusalem and Golan cases, annexing, or as Israel calls it, “extending sovereignty” over, someone else’s territory is illegal under international humanitarian law. Michael Lynk, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, has made it crystal clear that according to international law “annexation and territorial conquest are forbidden” by the UN Charter. Lynk says that “the Security Council, beginning with Resolution 242 in November 1967, has expressly affirmed the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war or force on eight occasions, most recently in 2016.”
The coalition agreement
It is with this background in mind that one needs to look at the conditionality that was inserted into the text of the coalition agreement between caretaker Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud and his political rival, former Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, from the Blue and White party.
The April 20 Netanyahu-Gantz agreement legitimized the possibility of an Israeli law that will act as a unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank to start as early as July 1, based on the controversial Trump Middle East plan. Articles 28 and 29 of the Israeli coalition deal condition such annexation on the “consent of the Trump administration” and note that such a move would only be possible if the annexation preserves “the security and strategic interests of the state of Israel including the need to keep regional stability, keep existing peace agreements, and pursue future peace agreements.”
It is unclear whether Gantz and his Blue and White party inserted this condition as a sort of fig leaf to cover up their embarrassment in front of the public that elected them or if they did this knowing full well that U.S. blessing and regional stability will trump short-term political compromises.
The United States
On the American front it is unclear how Washington will react to further demands by Israel after Trump has already moved the embassy, recognized the Golan annexation, and removed references to the occupation of Palestinian lands in the U.S State Department’s annual human rights report.
It is possible Trump could acquiesce to such demands in order to keep his conservative evangelical Christian base happy in the run-up to the November elections. At present the Trump administration is embroiled in battling an enormous and unprecedented health and economic crisis and therefore is unlikely to have time to spend with the Israeli government. Moreover, the Trump plan’s architect, Jared Kushner, is otherwise occupied heading up the U.S. fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, and some would argue that the land swaps suggested in the plan are meant to be part of an agreed-upon deal and not a unilateral act by Israel.
Israel’s leaders are clearly unsure of a Trump victory and that is why they want to advance the controversial annexation to July 2020, right in the middle of the U.S. presidential elections and before they know whether their man will win or not.
Jordan and Egypt
With Washington unlikely to put a stop to the madness of a controversial unilateral annexation, the only side that could possibly delay or deny any annexation is the Arab one.
While the West Bank was formally part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan when it was occupied by Israel in 1967, the Gaza Strip was never part of the Republic of Egypt. Egyptians have been publicly supportive of all Palestinian issues, but it is unclear whether the Sisi administration would be willing to take a strong stand against the U.S. and Israel over the issue of annexing some West Bank lands.
The leadership of the Blue and White party includes two former Army chiefs of staff. Israeli military and security strategists are on the record as opposing actions that could negatively affect Jordan. Senior Israeli security officials have said that annexation in any form (small or large) risks endangering the peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt and could very well blow up the situation in the occupied territories. It is safe to assume that the Gantz team — and perhaps even Netanyahu himself — are not interested in stirring up more regional and international trouble at this time.
Popular pressure on Jordan and Egypt to put the peace treaty with Israel on the table will undoubtedly increase in the coming weeks and months, but for Arab leaders there are other considerations as well. It appears that Jordan, more so than Egypt, will have a stronger public position on the issue of annexation. Such a unilateral act could potentially create existential problems for Jordan vis a vis the Palestinian people.
In 1994 Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel that included demarcation of the borders between the two countries. Those demarcations avoided the Jordan Valley, which was and still is expected by Jordan to border the Palestinian state. If Israel extends sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and carries out unilateral actions that would permanently deny the possibility of a two-state solution, then Jordan is expected to take a strong stand. In this context Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian leadership will most likely insist that the Arab League provide the political cover for such a stand.
Regardless of whether Gantz’s conditionality of the annexation is genuine or merely a political fig leaf, if it is used by Jordan and Egypt as part of a counter effort through a threat to suspend their peace treaties with Israel, it could provide the Arab countries with an opportunity to stand up for Palestinian rights and international law. The coming months will show whether they will be able to do so and disrupt the intentions of a small group of right-wing Israelis who have no genuine interest in peace.
Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on twitter @daoudkuttab. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images