How Israel’s Likud Party played the long game toward annexation of the West Bank
Israel’s leaders know that they will face strong criticism from powerful voices if they proceed with their plan for unilateral annexation of substantial parts of the occupied West Bank.
They will hear that any such move would imperil longstanding peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, inflame the Palestinians and end any hope of permanent peace, stir strong anti-Israel sentiment in Europe, violate United Nations Security Council resolutions, cut off promising lines of communication with Gulf Arab states, and undercut support for Israel among American Jews. They can also expect to hear, as they have many times, that if annexation of Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley presages annexation of the entire West Bank, it will jeopardize Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
Those arguments may be valid. But they fail to take into account the strong ideological, almost spiritual commitment to annexation that has long impelled some of Israel’s most powerful political figures, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud alliance. As a political group, Likud has been committed to annexation for decades.
When Menachem Begin was seeking to become Israel’s first Likud prime minister in the parliamentary elections of 1977, he ran on a platform that was unequivocally committed to annexation of the West Bank, the 2,263-square-mile territory west of the Jordan River that Israel had captured from Jordan in the so-called Six-Day War of 1967. Its population before the war was almost entirely Muslim Arabs, but to many religious Israelis and admirers of the pioneer Zionist Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the land was known as Judea and Samaria, its biblical names, and a rightful part of “Eretz Israel,” or Greater Israel.
“The right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is eternal and indisputable, and is linked with the right to security and peace,” the platform’s first paragraph said. “Therefore, Judea and Samaria will not be handed to any foreign administration; between the [Mediterranean] Sea and the Jordan there will be only Israel sovereignty.”
The document added that once in power, Likud would encourage young Israelis “to settle and help every group and individual in the task of inhabiting and cultivating the wasteland, while taking care not to displace anyone.” The West Bank was not a “wasteland,” but acting as if it were provided cover for keeping it in Israeli hands.
As prime minister, Begin — prodded by President Jimmy Carter at Camp David — set those aspirations aside in the interests of a more urgent goal, a peace treaty with Egypt, Israel’s most powerful enemy. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat wanted peace as much as Begin did, but he would not accept any agreement that affirmed Israeli sovereignty over what all Arabs regarded as Arab land.
That took the issue off the table for a while, but Likud has never repudiated the goals stated in that 1977 platform. It was a Labor Party government under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, not Likud, that entered into the Oslo Accords of 1993, which aimed at setting the Palestinians on a path to “self-determination.”
Neither the United Nations nor any major country, including the United States, has acquiesced in permanent Israeli control of the West Bank. President Trump in 2019 did recognize Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the same 1967 war, but that area is sparsely populated and few Arab Muslims live there.
The West Bank, by contrast, has a population of nearly 3 million, of whom approximately 600,000 are Israeli settlers.
The territory’s permanent status has defied multiple international efforts to establish a permanent solution for more than 50 years, as the White House noted in Trump’s “peace plan” for the region, released in January. That plan says it “aims to achieve mutual recognition of the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, and the State of Palestine as the nation-state of the Palestinian people, in each case with equal civil rights for all citizens within each state.”
The goal of “the state of Palestine as the nation-state of the Palestinian people” reflects the widespread diplomatic support, over many years, of a two-state solution to the conflict, but it remains hard to see how it can be reconciled with Likud’s position on sovereignty.
Shortly after the 1967 conflict, the U.N. Security Council, with U.S. assent, adopted its famous Resolution 242, which was a foundation of all subsequent diplomatic efforts. It stipulated “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” For that reason, many countries have long held the position that the Jewish settlements on the West Bank are illegal; the U.S. position was they were “obstacles to peace.”
But last year Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a reversal of this longstanding policy. “After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate,” he said, “the United States has concluded that the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.”
That may have emboldened Netanyahu to put the issue back on the front burner. The power-sharing agreement he recently forged with his political rival, Benny Gantz, says that he will be able to put before parliament this summer a plan to annex the existing settlements, about 30 percent of the West Bank. If the Knesset approved and Washington acquiesced, the plan could proceed “in coordination with other international players.”
What would happen after that is an open question. The Israelis do not want to add millions of Palestinian Arabs to their citizenship rolls and diminish the Jewishness of the state, but they also do not want to run some sort of “separate but equal” entity, which would be the alternative if they refused to grant citizenship and voting rights.
Israel’s Arab political parties expressed outrage, but reaction from Arab governments was largely muted — they have lived with talk of annexation for decades, they know Israel’s annexations of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights cannot be undone, and the conditions attached in the Netanyahu-Gantz pact may make it impossible for Netanyahu to fulfill Likud’s campaign promise. They also know in any case that the only government reaction that truly matters is that of the United States. Several reports about Pompeo’s May 13 visit to Jerusalem suggested that he was there to urge restraint on annexation, but neither he nor his boss, the president, has stated a clear position. They are essentially in the same position that British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour was in when he wrote his famous letter more than a century ago: “His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Then as now, that effort at balance was irreconcilable with the dreams of messianic Zionism to reclaim the entire Holy Land.