Israel is preparing to make the first major expansion of its sovereign borders in almost 40 years with its plan to annex portions of the West Bank now held under Israeli military and civilian rule. Here are 10 things to know about this unique event.
1. How many times has Israel expanded its sovereign borders?
Since Israel’s creation in 1948, it has changed its sovereign borders only four times, starting when its original border was set by the 1949 armistice agreement. In the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, Israel applied Israeli law to areas of Jerusalem it acquired from Jordan during that war, thereby greatly expanding the municipal boundaries of its capital city. This included Jerusalem’s Old City. That east Jerusalem annexation was formalized only in 1980 with a Knesset vote. The third change occurred just one year later, in 1981, when Israel applied sovereignty to the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria during that same Six Day War.
Last year and this year, Israel relinquished small tracts of its sovereign territory to neighboring Jordan, as dictated under the terms of its 1994 peace treaty with the Hashemite Kingdom. Israel in the past has also given up territory that it had under military rule. In 1982 it withdrew from the Sinai desert, captured from Egypt in 1967, as part of agreements under its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. Israel also unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, which it captured from Egypt during the Six Day War.
2. When will annexation take place?
July 1 was the most talked about date. Global attention focused on that date after the coalition agreement between the Likud and Blue and White parties stated that this was the earliest moment by which annexation could be applied.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, has never committed to an annexation date, short of vague promises about doing it soon.
No final annexation map has been presented. Without such a map, no final preparations can be completed. This includes security arrangements with regard to Israel’s new border. It also includes a multitude of bureaucratic and legal steps necessary with respect to the application of Israeli law to territory now held under Israeli military rule.
Any sovereignty declaration would need a government vote – and its execution would likely involve complementary Knesset legislation, none of which has been drafted.
The actual execution of annexation is extremely complex, involving multiple, system-wide governmental, security and Knesset conversations that have not yet even begun to take place. The July 1 date was more likely inserted into the coalition agreement with two issues in mind: the International Criminal Court and the US elections.
Israel’s best response to the ICC, should it issue a ruling stating that it has the jurisdiction to pursue Israelis for involvement in settlement activity, would be to announce annexation.
Separately, Israel is looking at a narrow window of opportunity offered to it by US President Donald Trump’s support for the matter. Annexation must therefore be executed prior to the US presidential election in November. The conventional wisdom is that it cannot be too close to the election, which puts the spotlight on this summer.
3. What is the connection between annexation and the Trump peace plan?
Netanyahu initially promised in September that he would apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and to the northern Dead Sea upon formation of a government. Then he extended that pledge to all West Bank settlements. He did so in response to pressure from right-wing politicians and the settlement movement without any connection to Trump’s peace plan, which had yet to be unveiled.
Once Trump unveiled his plan in January, Netanyahu said he would apply sovereignty based on the dictates of that plan, which allowed Israel to annex up to the 30% of the West Bank – where all the settlements are located. Trump’s plan included an initial map of that area, which amounts to 50% of Area C, which is under full Israeli civilian and military control.
Netanyahu also promised that annexation would occur only with approval from the United States, which asked that he delay any annexation effort until a joint Israeli-US mapping committee set the exact contours of the area to be annexed. That committee has yet to formally publish the results of its work or a new map.
Israel has yet to receive a green light from the US for annexation. Absent that approval, the only way Netanyahu could move forward on annexation at this point would be to do it outside the context of the Trump plan and without US consent.
Many right-wing politicians and prominent settler leaders are opposed to the Trump plan. They want Netanyahu to make good on his original promise to apply sovereignty to all of the Israeli settlements, absent any connection to Trump’s plan.
4. How does all this connect to Palestinian statehood?
The Trump peace plan links Israeli sovereignty over 30% of the West Bank with Palestinian statehood by insisting that any annexation measures must be done within a four-year process that would lead to a two-state resolution to the conflict. It offers the Palestinians a state on 70% of the West Bank. In exchange for US support for sovereignty, Israel must accept this premise. Israel is then allowed to execute annexation immediately, rather than wait for the end of the process.
The Palestinians and moderate Arab states have rejected the Trump plan and have held out for a two-state solution at the pre-1967 lines. They hold that Palestinian statehood is viable only with those borders. Palestinians contend that Israeli annexation measures, even those not done within the context of the Trump plan, would destroy any hope of Palestinian statehood.
5. What is the West Bank?
The West Bank is territory Israel seized from Jordan during the 1967 Six Day War, but never included within its sovereign borders. For the last 53 years, it has held that territory under Israeli military and civilian rule. During that time, it has allowed Israeli civilians to create extraterritorial communities there, known as settlements. There are currently some 130 settlements housing over 430,000 Israelis.
The 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords divided that territory into Areas A, B and C. They placed Areas A and B, totaling 40% of the West Bank, under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority and left Area C under Israeli military and civilian rule. Some 2.2 million Palestinians live in Areas A and B, with some 300,000 Palestinians living in Area C.
Prior to World War I, the West Bank belonged to the Ottoman Empire. It was then controlled by Great Britain as part of an entity known as Mandatory Palestine. Great Britain relinquished control of that area in 1948, and Jordan annexed it in 1949, in the aftermath of the 1948 War of Independence. It ruled over it until the Six Day War, when it lost the territory to Israel. Jordan formally relinquished ties to the area in 1988.
6. How much territory will Israel actually annex?
No final decision has been made.
Concern has grown over the 30% annexation plan, favored by Netanyahu, which amounts to half of Area C. In an attempt to calm Arab reaction, alternate proposals have been put forward that have focused on the settlement blocs such as the Gush Etzion region and the settlement cities of Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel.
It’s unlikely that the Palestinians or the Arab world would be assuaged by a settlement-bloc-only annexation plan.
Netanyahu doesn’t want to approve any plan that has been part of the mantra of the moderate Israeli Left, such as the blocs. If pushed to implement a modified plan, it’s presumed that he would prefer to see the Jordan Valley annexed for security reasons. After that, it’s expected he would want to annex the settlements of Shiloh and Beit El, which have biblical significance.
Channel 12 on Tuesday night reported that the US was pushing for a modified annexation plan, which retains the 30% option. In exchange, the 50% of Area C not annexed by Israel would be placed under the auspices of the PA. If put into place, the Palestinians would be given the 70% of the West Bank offered them under the Trump plan, but without any statehood recognition. Such a plan would also bring to an end Israeli military rule over Palestinian civilian affairs.
7. Who is opposed to Israeli annexation?
Almost everyone in the international community is opposed to annexation. This include the PA, Israel’s Arab neighbors and most of the other nations, as well as international entities such as the United Nations and the European Union.
The international community holds that Israel does not have the right to unilaterally change its sovereign borders. It believes that the Jewish state can only do so as part of a final status agreement toward a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In addition, the international community holds that the West Bank is territory designated to be part of a Palestinian state – and that Israel’s presence there, including its settlement activity, is illegal under international law and possibly constitutes a war crime.
Scores of UN resolutions uphold that viewpoint. The UN in particular holds that nations cannot acquire territory through conquest, even in a defensive war.
The Israeli Left, most notably the Joint List and Meretz, also holds this position. More centrist left-wing Israelis oppose the unilateral nature of annexation, but do not believe that all of the West Bank should be designated for a Palestinian state.
8. Who supports Israeli annexation?
The Israeli government and the Israeli Right, including the settlers, hold that Israel has historical rights to that area, which was once the heartland of biblical Israel. In addition, they hold that it has additional rights because it acquired the West Bank, also known as Judea and Samaria, in a defensive war in 1967.
Israel has contended that its hold on the West Bank cannot be considered an occupation, because the territory has not had a legally recognized status since it was governed by the British, who relinquished their ties to the territory prior to the creation of the State of Israel. It has argued that the UN’s designation of the West Bank for a future Palestinian state prior to the conclusion of a negotiated two-state solution ignores international agreements that existed prior to the UN’s formation.
At the UN Security Council earlier this month, Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon listed those documents, including the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the 1920 San Remo Conference. “In 1922, the League of Nations designated the land west of the Jordan River in its entirety to be the territory allotted to a Jewish homeland,” Danon said.
The United States is the only country to date to support an Israeli annexation or sovereignty plan. In November, it recognized that Israeli settlement activity was not inconsistent with international law.
Trump’s peace plan recognized Israel’s right to retain territory seized in a defensive war, such as the Six Day War, but will support a sovereignty initiative only if done within the context of that plan.
9. What international reaction can Israel expect?
The Palestinians will most likely use annexation to seek statehood recognition from European countries, which have previously believed that such recognition should be granted only upon completion of a peace process for a two-state solution.
They are also expected to pressure the UN Security Council to sanction Israel and/or grant the Palestinians membership status at the UN.
US support for Israeli annexation is critical here, because America is one of five permanent UNSC members that have veto power on any council resolution. This means it could block any UNSC sanctioning efforts against Israel and any attempts by Palestinians to gain UN membership.
European countries could also individually downgrade aspects of their ties with Israel and/ or look to boycott settlement products. At least seven European countries have warned Israel that a step such as unilateral annexation would harm their ties with the Jewish state. This includes the three most powerful countries: Germany, France and the United Kingdom.
Lack of EU consensus on an annexation response would likely prevent a collective response. But the EU could look for existing measures within its arsenal, including a boycott of settlement products.
Israel’s future ability to sign on to new EU agreements or to extend existing ones could be hampered, since such a step would need EU consensus. Effectively, Israeli ties with the EU could be frozen where they are today. Countries that oppose annexation could stymie such agreements, in the same way that countries that support Israel would prevent any form of EU sanctions against it.
10. What Palestinian and Arab world reaction can Israel expect?
The PA has warned that it would dissolve itself, forcing Israel to once again take full civilian control of the West Bank, akin to its pre-Oslo status. But this is a move that seems very unlikely. The PA has also warned that it would halt all security cooperation with Israel. It has already scaled back its cooperation with Israel on civilian humanitarian matters, such as exit permits for Palestinian medical patients in Gaza.
Of more concern are warnings from Jordan that popular protests in the country, which has a high Palestinian population, could imperil the Hashemite Kingdom’s rule and thereby destabilize a key regional ally for Israel. Its location, bordering on Iraq, makes moderate rule there particularly critical.
To offset such a possibility, Jordan has embarked on a major campaign against Israeli annexation and the Trump plan. It has also warned that any annexation efforts could cause irreparable damage to its relations with Israel, including the possible annulment of the 1994 peace treaty. Israeli and Jordanian military cooperation and the ties between the two countries in general are integral to Israel’s security.
Moderate Arab nations that have quietly inched toward cooperation with Israel have also warned that annexation would put an end to such contacts. The United Arab Emirates has been particularly vocal on this score.
Israel’s cooperation with moderate Arab states, beyond Jordan and Egypt, with which it has peace treaties, is particularly critical now in light of the growing Iranian threat. Tensions with Iran are likely to increase this fall, when the UN-imposed arms embargo against the Islamic Republic may to be lifted.