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More than 50 years after Israel’s sweeping victory in 1967 wrested control of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, among other areas, prospects for negotiating a long-term agreement inclusive of a territorial component between Israelis and Palestinians are as dim as ever. Instead, legislative efforts and public discourse in Israel have increasingly trended toward unilateral annexation of West Bank territory. As this analysis details, extending Israeli sovereignty over any or all Jewish settlements in the West Bank outside the framework of an agreement bears significant risk to Israel’s national security, international reputation, diplomatic and security ties, economic prosperity, and domestic security.
In the wake of the murder of 18-year-old Dvir Sorek—a yeshiva student and off-duty soldier found stabbed to death by Palestinian terrorists on August 8, 2019, near a Gush Etzion settlement— outpourings of grief were accompanied by numerous calls for West Bank settlement construction and annexation.
Speaking at a ceremony in the Beit El settlement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to continue building settlements and “deepen our roots in our homeland.” Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White Party, also proclaimed the importance of “building in Gush Etzion, which is part of the state of Israel, and in all the places we consider as having important strategic value.” Meanwhile, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and United Right leader Ayelet Shaked argued further in support of annexing some or all West Bank territory, and especially “consensus” areas like Gush Etzion.
The death of Dvir Sorek has reignited Israeli discourse surrounding West Bank annexation, an issue that has been steadily gaining political traction. Supporters have claimed that an increased civilian presence in the West Bank and application of sovereignty in consensus blocs will resolve much of the conflict over the area and decrease violence.
Encouraged by recent precedents such as 2014 Crimea annexation by Russia and the August 2019 unilateral revocation by India of Kashmir's autonomous arrangement, the Israeli protagonists of West Bank annexation have seemed to pick up the pace. The United States does not turn a blind eye to these trends. Rather, it does not rule out annexation. Asked about it an interview with The New York Times, U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, replied "We really don't have a view until we understand how much, on what terms, why does it make sense, why is it good for Israel, why is it good for the region, why does it not create more problems than it solves."
Nonetheless, most Israelis believe that the preferred way to secure a democratic nation-home for the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael within secure and recognized boundaries is based on the two-state principle. Maintaining the status quo is not an option for them, as it means a dangerous Israeli decline into a disastrous reality of one state. Such a state will either comprise a non-Jewish majority or will be non-democratic, lacking equality between its inhabitants; it would perpetually be on the verge of civil war.
Based on the assumption that Israel has a strategic window of opportunity to take independent and coordinated steps, while negotiating a longer-term agreement, several realistic plans were put on the shelf. The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) has a comprehensive political and military plan for starting traction toward a reality of two distinct political entities. Among other things, it suggests drawing a provisional border that would encompass the large blocks of settlements comprising ~75% of the settlers without annexing any West Bank territory until a final agreement is attained.
In contrast, no matter the geographic extent, annexation will initiate a perilous and nearly irreversible process, endangering Israel on numerous fronts. It will face international reprisals, a cooling of diplomatic relations with global and regional allies, and a diminished economic outlook. The inroads of Oslo will be all but undone, undermining the territorial viability of a future Palestinian state and jeopardizing the security and civil coordination with the Palestinian Authority. Rather than approaching the two-state-for-two-people vision, West Bank annexation will bring the Jewish-democratic state of Israel to a dangerous crossroads, and perhaps to the point of no return.
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