Observers of the Israel-Palestine conflict have been anticipating Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s, announcement to annex parts of the West Bank. It has been a tumultuous year for Israeli politics which has seen three inconclusive elections and resulted in a sharing of power between Netanyahu and Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party. However, since the coalition government was sworn in, Netanyahu has appeared to not lose any time in moving forward with his plans.
Annexation has long been Netanyahu’s political aspiration and was part of his recent re-election platform but the anticipated announcement from the Israeli government didn’t come straight away. The determining factor in the delay was the inability to reach an agreement with Washington about the scope of the annexation while divisions within the Israeli government itself, in addition to international condemnation from the region and beyond, has also played a part.
Discussions around annexation have so far yielded one major outcome: it has introduced a different rhetoric by the Trump-Netanyahu axis even though things on the ground don’t necessarily follow. Ever since President Donald Trump took office in 2016, there has been a marked change in Washington’s language around the Israel-Palestine conflict. It has shifted towards legitimizing Israel’s expansionist ambitions in the West Bank while marginalizing, and considerably weakening, the Palestinian Authority (PA) through a series of punitive measures.
This has further damaged relations between Israel and Palestine and has resulted in a fundamental change in the public discourse around the conflict, from emphasizing a just solution based on self-determination for both sides, to focusing on a de-facto one-state solution.
But how has the discourse shifted so dramatically in less than four years? First came the announcement of the US embassy move to Jerusalem, and with it, recognition of the city as Israel’s capital. In his statement, President Trump avoided recognizing Palestinian claims over Jerusalem and did not acknowledge their historical connection with the city. When the PA rejected the move, the US administration then retaliated by cutting aid and development funding and closing the PLO mission in Washington stating: ‘We have permitted the PLO office to conduct operations that support the objective of achieving a lasting…peace between Israelis and the Palestinians … However, the PLO has not taken steps to advance the start of…meaningful negotiations with Israel.’
On the question of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, the current US administration has shied away from calling them ‘illegal’ despite being deemed illegitimate under international law and condemned on numerous occasions by the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, the EU, the Arab League and the Palestinians themselves. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has even gone as far as saying that the establishment of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is not inconsistent with international law.
The culmination of US discourse in recent months has been the unveiling of the ‘Peace to Prosperity’ plan. The language of the proposal, once again, has shown partiality towards Israel by not mentioning the illegality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, or that of settlements, and entirely ignoring previous Palestinian positions or acknowledging their sensitivities. There is little doubt that the current US administration understands the power of rhetoric and has been using it to change the trajectory of discussions away from a two-state solution towards an outcome that would only serve Israeli interests.
Indeed, US rhetoric has empowered Netanyahu immensely too, ushering in a new reality that has rendered a Palestinian state nothing more than a hypothetical option. The language, combined with a multitude of unilateral actions, is helping to dismantle any efforts towards a two-state solution and the upholding of previous international agreements.
Many European and regional governments have condemned any move towards annexation. Indeed, 1,000 European parliamentarians from across political lines have urged Israel to abandon its plans. This has notably included, German Foreign Minister, Heiko Mass, whose first overseas visit during the coronavirus crisis was to Israel to reinforce Germany’s position against unilateral action.
But actions speak louder than words, and in the case of the US, its rhetoric has been matched by action unlike its EU counterparts whose statements of condemnation have rarely been followed by concrete action. For instance, the EU ratified a landmark aviation agreement with Israel just days before 1 July and economic, technological and scientific cooperation between Israel and Europe has never been stronger casting doubt on the strength of political will among EU countries to take action against Israel.
In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates has been the most vociferous in disapproving Israel’s annexation plans. However, again, it is important to look beyond the rhetoric. Cooperation between the UAE and Israel has in fact increased in recent years mainly due to common opposition to Iran’s regional influence but also due to shared interests. In May, for instance, the first publicly acknowledged commercial flight between the UAE and Israel landed at Ben Gurion airport carrying aid aimed at mitigating the effects of COVID-19 in the Palestinian territories. But, to many, it looked like a stepping-stone towards a normalization of relations between Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem.
Similarly, Jordan and Egypt have also expressed their concern but it is difficult to imagine a scenario where either country would go as far as abrogating peace agreements that they currently have in place with Israel.
In spite of this, the global response has overwhelmingly been critical of Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank. This has demonstrated some level of unity among world leaders which has not been seen for some time and may have played a significant role in delaying the Israeli government’s plans. In parallel, united international condemnation has also prevented the US from dominating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict entirely.
While the US approach has played a key role in the Israel-Palestine conflict so far, it remains to be seen how the international community will translate its voice into action to prevent the annexation of occupied Palestinian land.