In December 2017, as Donald Trump was preparing to announce his intention to effectively recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, I warned of the risks of exaggerating the danger of such a move. If the protests die down after a few days, I cautioned, the United States and Israel would have made it clear that ignoring Palestinian rights really isn’t very consequential, and Palestinians will have been shown in no uncertain terms that diplomacy was a dead end. Sadly, that was all too prescient.
At the time, however, many observers were wringing their hands over the looming disaster. The region will explode, some said. The two-state solution will be dead, moaned others. And, of course, there were the warnings of a third Intifada. The Palestinian leadership eventually cut off all communication with Washington, but this has hardly been deemed a loss by either the Trump administration or the never-ending government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
None of the other feared outcomes came to pass, and U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has become the new normal. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has made it clear he will not reverse Trump’s action. And Israel’s ever-tightening occupation has continued merrily along ever since. So have its efforts to gradually improve ties with Gulf Arab countries. This has routinely been the case since the end of the second Intifada, dire warnings of disaster fail to materialize, and the cry of wolf has increasingly become a background buzz that is easily ignored.
Instead, what we see is a steady degradation of conditions for Palestinians and of their prospects for seeing their rights recognized in the near term. Will Israel’s plan to annex much of the West Bank follow the same pattern?
Pro-Israel lobbying groups seem to think this is different. AIPAC granted a special dispensation, an indulgence, if you will, for elected officials criticizing Israel’s annexation plan. Congressional Democrats took quick advantage of AIPAC’s temporary hall pass to call on Israel to shelve the annexation plan. But AIPAC also made it clear that they continued to oppose any practical measures to stop Israel. As a result, Democratic opposition is largely rhetorical, while the Republicans are generally following the uncertain lead of the Trump administration on the matter.
Still, even looking past the openness with which AIPAC dictated the boundaries regarding policy toward Israel, their behavior reflects real concern about how annexation will affect Israel’s standing in the public eye. That concern is not for the rights of the Palestinians, but for Israel’s ostensible democracy. Israel will be seen as an apartheid state, its supporters fear, and that will severely erode support for it in the long term.
Others express concern of a third Intifada, regional upheavals, the final nail in the two-state solution’s coffin — the familiar list of worries, and indeed maybe this will be the event that finally sets off such tremors. If it does, however, it will only be the last straw, not an historically unprecedented event.
In fact, annexation is important to Jewish settlers and their supporters precisely for its diplomatic and political value, not because it will change much on the ground. Israel already exercises control over all the areas it is considering annexing.
Annexation, in the Israeli parlance, means extending Israeli law over certain territories. But that law is already applied within the settlements, while Israel applies a hodgepodge of laws — some dating back to the days of Ottoman rule over Palestine, others to the days of Jordanian control of the West Bank, mixed with Israel’s own “emergency laws” and rules of engagement — to govern West Bank Palestinians, including those who live in Area A, the sites of so-called Palestinian “self-rule.”
As a result, little will change in the day to reality of Palestinian lives in the West Bank. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about annexation; it is deeply opposed among Palestinians, because it solidifies the system of apartheid that has defined Israel’s relationship to Palestinians under its rule, citizens and non-citizens, since the state was created. But in terms of daily life for Palestinians, the days after annexation will look much like the days before it.
Annexation would appear to threaten Israel’s ambitions to normalize its relations with its Arab neighbors. But, while this is likely a greater immediate concern than the effect on the Palestinians, it is narrower than it might seem.
Among the Persian Gulf states, annexation will certainly slow the progress toward normalizing relations for a while. But it won’t stop it, any more than Trump’s relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem did, or any of Israel’s many moves to block diplomacy have done. There will be an initial response, a temporary halt in even the clandestine relations between the countries, perhaps, but in due course, business will resume. The lack of any visible change on the ground in the West Bank will facilitate accommodation to yet another “new normal.”
The one place where that might not be true is Jordan. King Abdullah II has warned the United States that he fears that annexation could cause significant conflict within Jordan, as well as between Jordan and Israel. While Jordan does not have census data, it is generally estimated that about half its population is of Palestinian descent. Annexation might change little on the ground, but for those millions of Palestinian refugees and Jordanian citizens of Palestinian heritage, it would mean the loss of what little hope they have for reclaiming their homeland. And they may well see the Jordanian government, with its fragile peace treaty with Israel, as complicit.
Normally, the United States is receptive to Jordanian concerns, but this moment features some unusual strain. Republicans want to extradite a Palestinian-Jordanian woman who proudly admitted to participating in a 2001 bombing of an Israeli pizza shop that claimed the lives of fifteen people, including an American woman. Ahlam Tamimi had been serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli prison when she was released as part of the exchange for captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011.
But Jordan and the United States are in the process of negotiating an extradition treaty, and the lack of that mechanism — along with the fact that Tamimi is a popular talk radio personality — complicates matters. The understandable antipathy toward Tamimi, who reportedly was happy to have helped kill not only civilians, but young children, is countered by the fact that Israel set her free, making it problematic to her supporters that the U.S. would then try to re-imprison her for the same crime.
A bill passed in December places U.S. aid to Jordan in jeopardy if Tamimi is not extradited. This could complicate an already tangled situation for the Trump administration, which seems to be trying to tailor Israel’s annexation plans to maximize their electoral benefit in November.
This is the price we pay for a policy based on U.S. support for Israel rather than on the universal rights of both Israelis and Palestinians. Annexation should not be deemed right or wrong based on the vexations of the Israeli, Jordanian, or even the Palestinian leadership. Rather, it should be opposed because it is illegal, immoral, and unjust. Any other argument is either too weak or too cynical to prevail.