A disingenuous debate about annexation

American Jews protesting the prospect of Israeli action to formalize its hold on territory aren’t defending chances for peace or a realistic plan to achieve it.

A view of the border between Israel and Jordan on Highway 90 in the Jordan Valley, on July 6, 2017. Credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90.
A view of the border between Israel and Jordan on Highway 90 in the Jordan Valley, on July 6, 2017. Credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The list of signatories to a new letter organized by the Israel Policy Forum protesting the possibility of Israel passing legislation in the upcoming months to annex parts of the West Bank is full of familiar names to those who have followed American Jewish organizational life in the last few decades. Some on the list—like current Reform movement leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs—are still important players in contemporary Jewish life. But many of the big donors and veteran activists mentioned could have been recycled from a host of similar efforts by liberal groups in the distant past.

The letter is a direct response to the latest news about the terms of a still not finalized coalition agreement to form a unity government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival, Benny Gantz. But the tone and the language used seem straight out of the early 1990s, when some of the same people were speaking up in favor of the Oslo Accords and its promise of land for peace, or later in the decade when they were disingenuously protesting Netanyahu’s policies during his first term as prime minister for being too slow to make concessions to PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Then, too, they were admonishing Israelis not to defend their rights because doing so would alienate the tender sensibilities of Americans.

Indeed, if a Jewish Rip Van Winkle were to have dozed off during the Clinton administration and awakened in the last week, he would feel right at home with the rhetoric admonishing Israelis not to alienate Americans or to sabotage hopes of peace with the Palestinians.

The push to annex parts of the West Bank, where hundreds of thousands of Jews currently live in settlement blocs, as well as the strategic Jordan Valley divides Israelis. Yet the notion that formalizing Israel’s control over these lands is an obstacle to peace is as much a relic of the past as some of the IPF letter’s signatories.

The land-for-peace formula that Yitzhak Rabin tried as a result of the Oslo Accords failed because first Arafat and then his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, in addition to their Hamas rivals, have consistently rejected peace efforts because of their inability to accept any deal that would require them to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders might be drawn.

Even in a theoretical scenario where the Palestinian Authority would finally make peace, Israel would have insisted on keeping the settlements on the land it now seeks to annex. Nor would any Israeli government, including one led by Gantz, ever give up the Jordan Valley. Indeed, the letter, which was addressed to Gantz, and his Blue and White Party colleague Gabi Ashkenazi, fails to take into account that their electoral success was primarily due to their rejecting the land-for-peace ideology of the Israeli left before it declined into irrelevance.

Nor, despite the complicated nature of the maps of the land that Israel intends to keep as part of the plan put forward by the Trump administration, would the implementation of this scheme prevent the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank with contiguous borders, even should the P.A. or Hamas ever be willing to make peace.

There are valid arguments to be made against Israel’s new government moving towards annexation right now, and one of them is mentioned in the letter.

Should the new government move on an annexation proposal in the next weeks or months, the timing will be terrible. Both Israel and the United States should be focusing all of their energy on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Neither Trump nor his presidential adviser/son-in-law Jared Kushner—the moving force behind the administration’s proposal for the Middle East and who is now working on the response to the pandemic—have the time or the interest to be dealing with annexation.

If the Israeli right is pushing for annexation now, it’s because they fear that if Netanyahu hesitates, a golden opportunity to achieve one of their long-term goals will be lost if Trump is defeated for re-election in November. But they need to put a lid on any talk that takes a Trump defeat for granted. The thin-skinned president doesn’t appreciate such assumptions, nor will he view kindly any Israeli action that is perceived as an attempt to take advantage of his being distracted as the coronavirus spreads across the United States.

Whether or not the timing is correct, American Jewish jeremiads about the issue are understandably falling on deaf ears in Israel.

The underlying presumption of those who claim that annexation will undermine Jewish support for Israel is that peace will require a retreat to the 1967 lines. That’s something the overwhelming majority of Israelis have repeatedly rejected—and for good reason. Repeating former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s experiment in which he withdrew from Gaza in the far more strategic West Bank strikes most Israelis as madness. If, despite the urgings of liberal American Jews, Gantz backed away from his objection to annexation in the coalition negotiations with Netanyahu, it is because he is a realist. The idea of Israel ever giving up places where so many Jews live on land where Jews have rights—based on history, law and faith—is no longer a viable option.

Living in the past and clinging to the false hopes of the 1990s won’t build support for Israel or nurture the alliance between the two democracies. It’s long past time for liberal American Jews, even the old Oslo-cheering squad, to accept the reality of Palestinian rejectionism and the permanence of the West Bank settlements, whether or not they believed that they were a good idea in the first place. Trying to undermine the new Israeli government or setting the stage for a conflict with the Democrats should Trump lose in the fall isn’t consistent with their claim of being ardent supporters of the Jewish state. Nostalgia for the illusions of the past should never be confused with activism that actually helps Israel.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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