The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has set a deadline of 1 July to start the process of the annexation of parts of the Palestinian West Bank to Israel. In two weeks’ time, Israel is expected to formalise what since the 1967 Six-Day War has become an increasingly inescapable reality: its permanent control of the West Bank and the disenfranchisement of its Palestinian inhabitants.
The Israeli government views this summer as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fulfil one of the most cherished historic goals of the Israeli right: declaring Jewish sovereignty over the lands they call Judea and Samaria. With Donald Trump – who does not even feign impartiality in the Middle East – at the head of Israel’s closest ally, ministers believe now is the perfect time to seize swathes of the Palestinian Territories.
Netanyahu may have been manoeuvred out of his traditional aversion to bold, headline-grabbing moves by Trump’s openness to Israeli unilateralism, says Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli-American historian. The US’s historical opposition to annexation was the perfect pretext to avoid a potentially irreversible move. But with Trump, whose Middle East “peace plan” was widely viewed as endorsing Israel’s territorial designs, that excuse has vanished. Netanyahu, however, may still find a way to wriggle out of his commitment, Gorenberg adds.
Yet in the event that annexation proceeds, it will change relatively little either for Palestinians or Israeli settlers living in the West Bank. Palestinians will continue to live under conditions of military occupation and be denied the right to vote for the government that controls countless aspects of their lives. The switch to Israeli law will remove a handful of protections they are granted under the international law of occupation, particularly around the expropriation of property, says Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer. Most Israeli settlers, for their part, already lead civilian lives in settlements that can resemble leafy New Jersey suburbs more than conflict zones, whether their homes formally lie within Israeli jurisdiction or not.
Yet morally and politically, the repercussions of annexation will be huge and lasting, echoing far beyond the borders of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, with four primary consequences.
The first will be to normalise the view that Israel is an apartheid state, an argument until now consigned to the fringes of criticism of the Jewish state. Since 1967, the official Israeli government line has been that the occupation of the Palestinian Territories is a temporary affair, which will eventually be resolved with the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Palestinians may provisionally live under military occupation but only because Israel is forced to retain the West Bank for now, the reasoning goes.
With annexation, however, the argument that the occupation is temporary will no longer be tenable. Israel will then be guilty of the crime of apartheid, defined in international law as the domination of one racial group over another for a permanent period, says Sfard.
Depending on the specific area of land Israel plans to annex, which has still not been made public, parallels with the Bantustan policy of apartheid South Africa may be drawn. The Israeli government has suggested that Palestinian villages within the designated land may not be annexed to Israel. Palestinian land could be carved into an archipelago of tiny, disconnected islands within a sea of Israeli territory – a legal fiction, according to activists, designed to deny Palestinians the right to apply for Israeli citizenship.
If so, Palestinians will inevitably compare the new map of the West Bank with the old Bantustans, the supposed black homelands that South Africa divided into as many as 29 non-contiguous territories each.
“The Nationalists were creating a cruel jigsaw puzzle out of people’s lives,” Nelson Mandela wrote of the Afrikaner government’s policy of consigning black South Africans to the bitty Bantustans. Indeed, Benjamin Pogrund, a South African-born ally of Mandela who authored a 2014 book arguing that Israel could not be compared to the racist South Africa, has said that after annexation, the parallel with apartheid would be warranted.
The second consequence will be to all but permanently kill off the two-state solution, which remains official policy for the vast majority of countries around the world. Annexation will put paid to any residual chance that a Palestinian state could eventually stand alongside Israel, peacenik leaders fret.
As a result, Israelis, Palestinians and the international community alike will need to decide how to reconcile Israel’s existence with upholding the civil and national rights of Palestinians. Countries will splinter along ideological and realpolitik lines in their responses. The less imaginative will stick to the inoffensive but defunct paradigm of the two-state solution. Others will side with Israel and Trump’s US, betting that thuggery in international affairs is here to stay. Still more may back unorthodox solutions, such as the “two states, one homeland” initiative, which envisions free movement between two sovereign states sharing some common institutions.
The third consequence will be to further normalise the seizure of land by force, something generally considered illegal under international law since the Second World War. Unscrupulous states around the world eyeing up chunks of their neighbours’ land will relish the precedent set by Israel’s land-grab of territory conquered in war.
Since 1945, the international community’s record in condemning seizures of land – from a previous annexation of the West Bank by Jordan after the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, to sanctions imposed on Russia over its 2014 takeover of Crimea – has been “impeccable,” says Sfard. It will take a similarly forceful condemnation of Israel’s move to maintain this taboo.
Finally, annexation will inevitably hasten the end of Israel’s democratic character. The demographic balance between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is just about half Jewish, half Arab (around two million Arabs are Israeli citizens). Israel will only be able to maintain itself as a Jewish state with the permanent disenfranchisement of the majority of Palestinians under its control, who would otherwise vote in a substantial contingent, perhaps a slim majority, of representatives dedicated to dismantling Jewish statehood.
Palestinians are now gearing up for the same fight Mandela dedicated his life to: one citizen, one vote. If the Palestinians win, it will mean the end of the Jewish state in its current form. Until they do, it will mean the end of Israeli democracy.