(May 20, 2020 / JNS) Israel finally has a new government after three elections and more than a year of political stalemate. As it gets to work dealing with the calamitous effects of COVID-19, one of the main questions now is whether or not it will set in motion the Trump Mideast peace plan, which includes negotiating with the Palestinians and applying Israeli law to the Jordan Valley, and parts of Judea and Samaria. In his speech before the swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset on Sunday, Netanyahu said, “It’s time to apply the Israeli law and write another glorious chapter in the history of Zionism.”
But real concerns exist about Israel going forward with this plan amid warnings from the European Union and from elements in the United States during a presidential-election year, in addition to uncertainty regarding an investigation by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy, told JNS that he believes Israel will implement the plan. Regarding the Jordan Valley, Inbar said the details in the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan “makes it clear it is important for our security and removes from the table all suggestions for alternative security arrangements that are not good for us.”
With regard to some of the language and terminologies circulating around the plan, Inbar said it is important to understand that, contrary to popular belief, this would not be a unilateral move on Israel’s part. Since America backs it, such a move cannot and should not be considered unilateral.
He added that it is also important not to use the word “sovereignty,” but rather “applying Israeli law” when referring to the Israeli plan to take control of the Jordan Valley, and other parts of Judea and Samaria. This is because, according to him, these areas never formally belonged to a high sovereign state, and as such, one cannot annex or apply sovereignty to an area that did not and does not belong to another high sovereign entity.
“The plan has to be accepted with all the components, and Israel should not accept or implement one or ignore the others.”
Judea and Samaria, also known internationally as the West Bank, has been under Israeli control since the 1967 Six-Day War. Aside from the important security aspects of the region for Israel, it also is considered the “Jewish Heartland,” featuring many important Jewish heritage and biblical sites dating back thousands of years. Between 1949 and 1967, the territory was illegally occupied by Jordan—a move that was only recognized by the United Kingdom, Iraq and Pakistan. Prior to that, the territory had been part of the larger British Mandate of Palestine that had been established by the League of Nations to administer former parts of the defunct Ottoman Empire, which had controlled much of the Middle East since the 16th century.
The expected move by Israel to incorporate these territories has already been met with international condemnation, especially from the European Union and the Democratic Party in the United States. E.U. high representative on foreign affairs Josep Borrell has warned that it would “constitute a serious violation of international law.” And 11 European ambassadors also advocated against it, saying that it would constitute “a clear violation of international law.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, told Jewish Democrats that he does not support “annexation,” and that it any unilateral steps by either side “would undermine the possibility of a negotiated two-state solution.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sent a letter earlier this month to Netanyahu, warning him that it “will result in long-term costs to Israel’s national security and diplomatic relationships.”
U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) drafted a letter to Netanyahu and Gantz cautioning that annexation “would fray our unique bonds, imperil Israel’s future and place out of reach the prospect of a lasting peace.”
Factors that could stay Israel’s hand
Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S. politics and foreign policy, and a senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, told JNS that it’s possible that the entire idea of applying Israeli law to these areas will not materialize due to conflicts within the White House, as well as within the Israeli Prime Minister’s office.
Gilboa said that one group in the White House believes that Trump should support the plan since it wouldn’t hurt his political base, especially ahead of November’s presidential elections. The other group, from the intelligence and foreign-policy establishments, says the United States should stick to those principles by which “the plan has to be accepted with all the components, and Israel should not accept or implement one or ignore the others.”
According to Gilboa, it is telling that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Israel should make its own decision. By saying this, Pompeo was hinting that Israel has the right to apply Israeli law, but should not actually do it.
“There are all kinds of mixed messages.”
Gilboa also noted that Trump doesn’t need Israel’s implementation of the plan to keep his voter base. He has already proven his pro-Israel record by moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights and reversing the 1978 Hansell Memorandum that mistakenly stated that Israeli settlements are “inconsistent with international law.” That comes in addition to withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
He pointed to a few additional factors that could prevent the application of Israeli law to the areas in question.
One, he said, is the makeup of the new Israeli government. Gantz’s and Ashkenazi’s positions on the matter are important; they support extending Israeli law over the Jordan Valley, but not necessarily over the other parts of Judea and Samaria. That can be countered with the stance of the right-wing party Yamina, which supports applying Israeli law to all of Judea and Samaria.
The second factor is that Israel must have the full-fledged support of the United States, and, according to Gilboa, that remains uncertain.
“There are all kinds of mixed messages,” he said. “It’s not clear which one reveals the true motivation and true spectrum of options.”
The third issue, the E.U aspect, is also important, he said. Israel has some stalwart friends—namely, Hungary and Austria—from Eastern Europe in that body, which have prevented a unanimous condemnation of Israel.
Gilboa said the European Union is an “important front” for Israel because of the significant “commercial, scientific and other relations Israel has with [it].”
The fourth issue is the International Criminal Court, which represents a major threat to Israel if it decides to pursue war-crimes charges against the Jewish state for actions taken against Palestinian protesters. Netanyahu mentioned this in his speech to the Knesset this week, calling the ICC’s intentions a “strategic threat.”
It could, acknowledged Gilboa, be another reason not to go ahead with the sovereignty move now, as it could accelerate the ICC’s decision, “something that Israel is very concerned about.”
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