If Annexation Happens…
By Paul Scham
I imagine that anyone at all concerned with Israel has managed to tear themselves away from the appalling daily reality of the coronavirus and of our president and made themselves aware of another looming catastrophe; namely Israel’s likely annexation of parts of the West Bank after July 1. That is the date the new coalition government has set, after which an annexation bill can be presented to the government (i.e., the cabinet), where it is virtually certain to pass, whence it will proceed to the Knesset, which will also pass it. That’s that.
We are implicated in this bill both as Jews who support Israel and as Americans. As Jews we care that Israel is moving towards becoming a rogue state – as this act is fundamentally in breach of international law and opposed by virtually the entire world community outside the US (though the rightwing governments in Hungary and Austria announced recently they would block the European Union from taking any concerted action). As Americans we know that the only thing that has allowed Israel to proceed with annexation is Trump and Kushner’s already infamous “Deal of the Century,” recently reaffirmed by Secretary of State Pompeo. Theoretically that gives us and our Israeli allies two routes to stop annexation, but the reality is that Trump controls American foreign policy and annexation commands a majority among Israelis. It is not a done deal yet – anything could happen – but any path to stop it seems narrow. Nevertheless, we must try. Partners and its sister organizations in the Progressive Israel Network have made it their highest priority.
We still don’t know what parts of the West Bank Israel will annex. The DoC purports to grant Israel the right to annex all settlements plus the Jordan Valley, which would turn remaining Palestinian territory into a patchwork of non-contiguous pieces of land. Bibi may not choose to annex the most far-flung settlements; on the other hand he has announced that none will be evacuated.
While we must fight against annexation, we must simultaneously think about dealing with the situation if annexation goes through. While I don’t claim to have the answer, I have some suggestions.
The two-state solution is preferable to all other options. It doesn’t solve all problems but it provides a viable framework on which to deal with them. I have supported it for 30 years, from even before it seemed imminent and attainable during the Oslo years through the Second Intifada, which killed all hope among Israelis, through the Abbas-Olmert deal, abandoned so mysteriously, and the abortive attempts of Secretary Kerry, verging on the duplicitous, to revive it. But now may be the end, if we don’t stop the annexation. The irony, though only useful for a rueful chuckle, is that annexation’s greatest proponents, the settlers, are themselves against the Trump plan. Why? Because it purports to establish a convoluted and non-viable Palestinian statelet, but with so many impossible conditions to be fulfilled that it will never come to pass. They purport to see any Palestinian state whatsoever as an existential danger to Israel.
So what is the alternative if annexation goes through and in January a President Biden (Inshallah, b’ezrat Hashem) cannot or will not reverse it? We of the pro-Israel peace camp owe it both to our Israeli comrades and our Palestinian cousins not to give up, for both of their sakes.
Of course, the simple and simplistic alternative is “one democratic state.” Apart from the opposition of virtually all Israeli Jews and many Palestinians, such a state would fulfill neither nation’s national goals, nor would it be workable in practice. Two peoples with fierce and opposing narratives and over 100 years of vicious conflict cannot be shoved together and told to get over it. It is the mentality of a school yard monitor.
What I have become more and more interested in during the last few years is the movement that goes under the name of One Land, Two Peoples and is supported by the predominantly secular group Two States One Homeland and the religiously-oriented Roots/Shorashim/Judur. They often work together, though I’ve had more contact with Roots.
Like many leftists, I have avoided settlers and settlements for many years, seeing them as the root of much that is wrong with Israel. However, close to 500,000 Jews live in the West Bank and 300,000 in East Jerusalem, some for three generations now. Though the majority are near the Green Line, more than enough live so far from it that it is doubtful whether a two-state map could now be drawn that any Israeli or Palestinian government could accept. Annexation would make two states impossible once and for all – in my view.
I have met the Jewish leaders of Roots and their Palestinian counterparts and was astonished that they accept each other in ways that I had previously seen only on the Left. They work together to counter settler violence, but principally to build trust between the warring communities. Most of the Roots activists live in the Gush Etzion area of the West Bank, east and south of Jerusalem, known as generally containing more moderate settlers.
Their views are similar to mine with one essential difference: they believe fervently in the indivisibility of the Land of Israel/Palestine and their right to live in any part of it, subject to reasonable laws and regulations. They say that Palestinians must have the exact same right to live in the Land of Palestine. Needless to say, the latter is anathema to the vast majority of settlers who see their views as bizarre and dangerous.
They are less interested in long-term political solutions than in building trust but when pressed, they talk about a “confederation,” of a Palestinian and a Jewish state with borders along the Green Line, but where members of either nation could live anywhere but would vote in their own state. A rough approximation is the arrangement in the European Union, though perhaps with somewhat less national sovereignty. But first trust must be built, a task they see as taking a generation or two.
Trust! How could they speak of relying on trust, when lack of trust is what, fundamentally, brought down the hopes of Oslo? If there were trust, the majority of Israelis would have readily agreed to a Palestinian state a generation ago. Isn’t this utopian and dangerously unrealistic?
It is hard to imagine, they answer, but what is the alternative? I have no answer to that. If the two-state solution is precluded, what is left except people learning to live together under current circumstances? Most Palestinians do not want another intifada.
Obviously, this is a simplification. I was somewhat reassured when I toured their rudimentary headquarters and spoke at some length with the Palestinians who are part of their organization – and face as much skepticism among their people as the Jews do.
However, I am seriously bothered by the implication that the Israeli occupation must last until trust is built, no matter how long it takes. That means Israeli control of Palestinian lives for the foreseeable – and largely unforeseeable future. I have not heard a good answer to that except for the usual show-stopper: “What is the alternative?” I have no response to that – in the absence of a viable two-state option.
Others may see a different solution as preferable if the two-state solution is buried for good. There is no ready alternative, which is why we must try to save it. But, in my view, annexation will end that possibility.
The Israeli Left doesn’t generally accept Roots as an ally, giving the same objections I raised, and many more. The worldviews seem too different. It is not simply a matter of religious vs. secular, as they are also wary of the secular Two States-One Homeland. However, their visions of peace are not really that far apart and, in my view, they must learn to accept each other, because the number of Jews and Palestinians who are ready for real compromise on either side is small and not growing.
The pro-Israel Left, here and in Israel, will likely face some difficult choices in the next few years even if annexation is stopped – but especially if it’s not. We need to face those choices with an open mind – and realistically. We are not in the world we imagined for ourselves 25 years ago – and yet we must continue.
Paul Scham is a Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland and President of Partners for Progressive Israel. The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of Partners or of Meretz.