columnMiddle East

The great myth of Israeli annexation

The Jewish state is not about to march across any border or claim even an inch of new territory. To the contrary, its footprint in Judea and Samaria will remain exactly the same.

View of Efrat, in Gush Etzion, Judea and Samaria, on January 6, 2020. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
View of Efrat, in Gush Etzion, Judea and Samaria, on January 6, 2020. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
Alex Traiman
Alex Traiman is the CEO and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate).

For the last several weeks, habitual critics of Israeli policies, dubious self-described Israel supporters and even some longtime friends have come out against Israeli plans to “annex” parts of the West Bank.

Here are their arguments: The Palestinian Authority will collapse; Israel will effectively kill the two-state solution and eventually become a minority within its own binational state; the peace treaty with Jordan will be rescinded; normalization with Arab Gulf states will halt; European nations will apply sanctions on Israel; Democrats will distance themselves even further; and the Trump administration will be angered.

Sounds pretty bad. As David Horovitz of The Times of Israel summarized, such a move “not only damages the way we are perceived around the world, it remakes the way we present and see ourselves.”

The statement is reminiscent of the infamous argument of inferiority made by 10 of the 12 Jewish spies who gave a negative report to Moses and the Jewish people, just as the young nation was getting set to enter the Promised Land for the first time: “ … We were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes.” That report, which commentators consider a fundamental Jewish error, led to the Israelites having to wander the desert for 40 years. And the date of the spies’ report — the ninth day of Jewish calendar month of Av, Tisha B’Av—has been a day of Jewish mourning  for centuries.

In rehashing the same unfounded biblical fears, what is clear is that modern critics are hyper-concerned with the optics of an Israeli administrative move, despite the simple fact that Israel’s action would not change any facts on the ground.

Changing status, applying Israeli law

Many of today’s critics specifically call Israel’s upcoming move an “annexation” because the politically charged term falsely implies that Israel will be marching across a line and taking over property it has no rights to and does not currently control. Yet what Israel is about to do is alter its own governing structure and formally apply Israeli law to the 400,000 Jewish citizens who already live in the strategic lands the Jewish state has controlled for decades.

The land in question represents approximately half of the territory delegated to Israeli control by the now infamous Oslo Accords. This territory is legally referred to as “Area C.”

“Area A” and “Area B” are under Palestinian administrative control. Neither Israel nor the international community interferes in how Palestinians govern or don’t govern those territories. At present, not a single Jew resides in these areas.

U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman with Head of Efrat regional council Oded Revivi and heads of local councils in Judea and Samaria during a visit to Efrat, in Gush Etzion, February 20, 2020. Photo by Gershon Elinson/Flash90

Jews living in “Area C” are full, tax-paying Israeli citizens. The Israeli government administers these territories and maintains the daily life of its Jewish residents. Such basic services include providing for physical safety, funding infrastructure, paving streets, supplying electricity and water, collecting garbage and so on.

With the move, Israel would demilitarize its administration of key settlement blocs by simply removing the authority of an Israel Defense Forces’-controlled “Civil Administration” originally set up to govern settlements.

The move signifies that Israel is confident of its ability to defend residents in settlements just as it defends the lives of all other Israelis. More importantly, the move jettisons layers of bureaucratic discrimination affecting Jewish settlers who are governed differently from their friends and family members living barely 10 to 20 minutes away.

For example, instead of needing the approval of the Defense Ministry to build a new apartment complex in Judea, approval would now be required by Israel’s Housing Ministry, which regulates such measures across the rest of the otherwise-small Jewish state.

Just as nobody tells the Palestinian Authority how to govern the territories it administers, Israel’s decision over how to govern “Area C” should be of little concern to anyone who doesn’t live there.

For all the criticism now being hurled at Israel’s unity government, the Jewish state is not about to march across a line or border or to claim even an inch of new territory. It’s not about to advance a single tank or soldier, or place its flag anywhere that it has not already been proudly hanging for decades.

As such, the move poses no threat to the sustainability of the Palestinian Authority or to Israel’s critical relations with Jordan.

On the contrary, Israel’s footprint in Judea and Samaria is actually about to be frozen within specific geographic parameters approximately half the size of the territory it currently and legally controls in order to protect the remote prospects for a future Palestinian state.

Four-year building freeze

In exchange for American recognition and to give the administration’s new “Peace for Prosperity” plan a chance to succeed, Israel is now set to undertake an unprecedented four-year freeze of building in much of the key areas it already controls. According to the terms discussed between the Israeli and U.S. administrations, Jerusalem is promising to implement a freeze on the building of any new Jewish infrastructure outside the perimeter of existing settlement blocks.

These tracts are being set aside in the unlikely scenario that Palestinians will comply with the basic requirements necessary for statehood as laid out by the current U.S. administration, in coordination with Israel. These requirements include the cessation of a $150 million-plus annual pay-to-slay terror financing scheme; stopping all forms of terror incitement; financial transparency; free and open parliamentary and presidential elections; and the complete disarmament of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which includes tens of thousands of rockets currently stockpiled for use against Israel.

Perhaps instead of criticizing Israel for its legal maintenance of the territories it controls, critics should press on the Palestinian Authority to start behaving like a peaceful actor.

And while opponents of Israel’s administrative move suggest that it further harms prospects for the creation of a Palestinian state, the building freeze actually protects those prospects—even as Palestinians continuously violate their obligations under the Oslo Accords and have failed to lay even the most basic foundations for a lasting peace, let alone responsible statehood.

It is for that reason that many members of Israel’s nationalist right-wing are vehemently opposed to the Trump administration’s Mideast vision.

After years of absorbing and countering Palestinian terror, opponents argue that the last thing Israel needs to do right now is give Palestinians yet another opportunity for statehood when they have done nothing to earn it.

Yet a Palestinian state is in no way an automatic outcome of the four-year building freeze. A 10-month settlement building freeze demanded by former President Barack Obama in 2009 did nothing to further advance the cause of peace—not to mention that Israel received absolutely nothing in return for its gesture.

Now Israel is preparing to freeze building in key territories for several years. The United States is willing to return the gesture by recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the lands in which it recognizes are likely to remain a part of Israel in any bilateral negotiation.

U.S. recognition of sovereignty follows a recent declaration to Israeli leaders by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that “we will no longer recognize Israeli settlements as per se inconsistent with international law,” adding that this conclusion “is based on the unique facts, history and circumstances presented by the establishment of civilian settlements in the West Bank.”

Those who argue that Israel is pushing the limits of the U.S.-Israel relationship are ignoring Pompeo’s statements, as well as the fact that the land that Israel will now apply sovereignty over was mapped out over several months by a joint Israeli and American committee that includes U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer.

America is fully prepared to recognize Israel’s efforts, and it will do so specifically because its leaders believe that the move is just and will not trigger any of the potential harms being warned by the consistent critics of Israel’s policies.

Support should not only come from a friendly U.S. administration, but from anybody who claims to support a free and democratic State of Israel.

Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.

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