The Israeli prime minister has promised annexation and the Palestinian president has vowed to end security coordination. Neither really want that to happen
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speak during an event about the Middle East peace talks in 2010 (Reuters)
in Tel Aviv, Israel
Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas pretend that they are on two parallel lines that never meet. With their grievances, mutual mistrusts, political and ideological differences, the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian president seem to be worlds apart.
They are not on speaking terms. They met for a few minutes in 2016 when Abbas went to Jerusalem to attend the funeral of Shimon Peres, the late Israeli president. Their last serious meeting was in 2010, back when Netanyahu still talked about the two-state solution
Nevertheless, the two share the same trait, which they would never admit but bind them together. They both threaten to take steps that they actually oppose. They make promises which they hope will not materialise.
Netanyahu has declared in the last 18 months that he will annex parts of the occupied West Bank – or, in his words, “apply Israeli law”.
Israel’s planned annexation of the Jordan Valley: Why it matters
The annexation of the Jordan Valley could effectively kill whatever hopes remain for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict as it would render completely impossible the establishment of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.
In April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached an agreement with his rival Benny Gantz to form a unity government that seek to impose Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley. Legislature could be discussed from 1 July.
The Jordan Valley accounts for around one-third of the occupied West Bank (almost 2,400 square kilometres), where 30 Israeli agricultural settlements house around 11,000 settlers.
Some 56,000 Palestinians also reside in the Jordan Valley, including in the city of Jericho, where their daily lives are deeply impacted by Israeli occupation policies.
The area is rich in minerals and agricultural soil and is a highly strategic area, as it lies along the Jordanian border.
Should annexation be fully implemented, Israeli laws would be applied to these areas, instead of orders and regulations issued by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), a unit of the Israeli army responsible for overseeing building permits, water, agriculture, road construction and other civil matters in the West Bank.
Jordan shares 335km of borders with Israel and the West Bank, and Amman’s security coordination is highly treasured by Israel’s military and intelligence.
The areas slated for annexation include a 97km stretch along the border with Jordan, including two crossings: the Sheikh Hussein Bridge and the al-Karameh Bridge, also known as the Allenby crossing.
Jordan, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and senior officials in the European Union openly oppose the annexation plan, while the administration of US President Donald Trump has encouraged such moves.
Abbas has repeatedly vowed if Israel annexes one inch of the West Bank (significant chunks of which are already dotted with Jewish settlements) he will terminate the Oslo Accords signed with Israel in the early 90s.
As a first step to back his threats, Abbas said this week he had ordered an end to the security coordination between his intelligence and police forces and their Israeli counterparts, the Shin Bet domestic security service and the Israeli army.
On Thursday, it was reported that the Palestinian Authority had already outlined its intentions to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which is an unofficial guarantor of security cooperation.
But both leaders, in their hearts and minds, don’t really mean what they say.
Netanyahu, knowing annexation’s price tag for Israel, the Arab world and the international community, doesn’t actually want it to happen.
Abbas, on the other hand, also knows very well the risks of security disengagement. He is aware that Hamas and other rivals will benefit from such a move and deepen their grip in the West Bank at the expense of the Palestine Authority (PA).
Yet, inadvertently both leaders and their countries may find themselves landing on a collision course, which may lead to a new war between Israel and Palestine, and turmoil and violence in the Arab world, which eventually will benefit Iran.
Netanyahu, already 14 years in office, is the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, surpassing by one year David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founder and its first leader. Ideologically, he believes in the notion of Greater Israel, which perceives Israel as the sole homeland of the Jewish people existing in the borders between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.
But throughout most of his years in office, Netanyahu has persistently avoided using its power to push for such a move. Furthermore, until Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017, Netanyahu was publicly adhering to his support for the two-state solution. But even in the first two years of the Trump administration the Israeli prime minister didn’t show signs of any policy change. Only in the last 18 months he began to openly advocate the annexation idea.
It is a result of several domestic developments that occurred around the same time frame.
First of all, Netanyahu was indicted on corruption charges and appeared in court as his trial began on Sunday.
Secondly, he fought three national elections with no decisive results, which prevented him from forming a stable government.
Thirdly, militant right-wingers, especially Jewish settlers from the occupied West Bank, took advantage of the political instability and put pressure on Netanyahu to support annexation.
To deflect the pressure and divert attention from his trial, he declared he would annex at least the Jordan Valley area.
But even now, Netanyahu – who two weeks ago managed to form a national unity government – hesitates. He is squeezed between two contradictory vectors.
On one hand he wants to be written in the history books and live his imprint as the leader who fulfilled his promise and who followed his ideology. But on the other hand, he knows that the results of his move will be disastrous.
By delivering the final blow to the two-state solution, Israel will lose in a matter of a decade its Jewish and democratic nature. This will lead either to a singular state where the Palestinians will become the majority, or to Israeli apartheid.
Many Arab governments, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have already expressed their concern and opposition to annexation. If Netanyahu goes ahead, Jordan, which is Israel’s strategic partner, will most probably break off diplomatic relations with Israel.
If Netanyahu goes ahead, Jordan, which is Israel’s strategic partner, will most probably break off diplomatic relations with Israel
Even inside Israel there are strong voices against it. Not only from within the coalition – such as the new defence and foreign ministers Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi – but most of the chiefs of the security and intelligence establishment also warn about the ramifications and worry especially about the future relations and peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt.
Netanyahu has a small window opportunity of two to three months to announce the annexation. It has to be before the US elections, while Trump is in power. The Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden has also made it clear that he is against Netanyahu’s plan.
But even the Trump administration is talking in two voices. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Israel has the right to make its own decision, but in the same breath US officials have urged Netanyahu not to take unilateral decisions and coordinate its moves with leaders in the region. Practically that sends him a message: don’t do it.
As in most cases and developments in the past, this historic decision whether to annex the West Bank and make it part of Israel is not in the hands of the Israeli leader but in Washington. If the US president tells Netanyahu to restrain himself, there will be no annexation for the time being.
If he doesn’t, Netanyahu may make the fatal move with all its historical implications to Israel, the Jewish people, the Palestinians, the Arab world and the international community. It will be irreversible.