Don’t Be Fooled by Israel’s New Treaties, Annexation Will Continue
Israel’s peace deals on August 12 with the UAE and on September 11 with Bahrain came with remarkably few concessions to the Palestinians. The published parts of the deals do not mention the Palestinians, other than briefly referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The one nominal concession was to suspend the annexation of West Bank territories. While some believe annexation is off for good, on paper it is merely paused for an unknown period of time. Netanyahu has stressed there were no real sacrifices for peace, mentioning there is “no change in my plans for annexation, with full coordination with the US.” Given his constituents’ enthusiasm and the political power of the pro-annexation camp, annexation is likely to proceed once the dust of the treaties settles.
Annexation, alongside diplomatic relations between Israel and Arab states — including a highly compromised Palestine — is a central element of the Trump peace plan. Israel is now celebrating the political breakthroughs with the UAE and Bahrain achieved by this framework, after more than ten years of almost total diplomatic stagnancy with the Arab and Muslim world. Israel’s economy, slowed down by the COVID-19 fallout, has received a healthy injection of hope. Many Israelis remember the heady days of the Oslo agreements, when economic growth was dizzying and Arab and Muslim countries stood in line to open relations with Israel. It is unlikely that Israel, which co-authored the current peace plan, will forego annexation altogether. It would require a Trump administration going back on its commitment, and Netanyahu showing weakness to his core constituency.
The perception that Israel’s lack of agreements with Palestinians can block its agreements with other Arab countries has been damaged if not obliterated. Other than slogans, the Palestinians as a national collective currently have little to offer the rest of the Arab world. Israel will now embark on a major effort to make itself indispensable to the UAE, Bahrain, and other countries that normalize, solidifying ties so the annexation, when it comes, will not bring the budding official relations to a premature halt. Even before Bahrain joined in, Sudan had already mentioned it may follow the UAE’s lead. Although the Foreign Ministry spokesperson who said this was fired, the fact it was suggested at all is likely to be indicative of meaningful positive developments. Additional Arab countries such as Oman, possibly Morocco, and ultimately Saudi Arabia could continue to develop more extensive and open ties as well. This is likely to have a major impact on the Middle East and the Muslim world.
Having previously assumed the UAE and Bahrain to be more reliable allies, Palestinians are understandably livid. In the West Bank and Gaza, their situation will hardly change for the better. Settlement expansion and de facto annexation continue in the former, the blockade in the latter. By providing considerable political and economic benefits at very little real cost to Israel, the agreements with two economic powerhouses in the Gulf enable Israel to shift the status quo in its favor, continue to work towards annexation, and eventually create a one-state reality while keeping Palestinians disenfranchised in their Bantustans as prescribed in the Trump Plan. Indeed, this is the major fault of the new peace agreements. These agreements further reduce Palestinian ability to negotiate more favorable terms than those proposed in the Trump Plan, which essentially calls for autonomy in fragmented areas rather than for a sovereign, contiguous Palestinian state.
The confluence of the Trump Plan, Israeli government policy over the last decade, and Palestinian weakness require an appropriate response. The disenfranchisement of Palestinians, although superficially favorable to Israel, will be problematic over the longer term. The Arab countries normalizing relations with Israel are not democracies. Therefore, the relations are actually with the regimes rather than with the people, who remain largely hostile to Israel. The exclusion of the Palestinians will only exacerbate the situation and may cause problems should they, once again, attempt a popular struggle to advance their cause. The Arab populace may well come out in support and pressure their respective regimes.
The only way to prevent this scenario is to start developing realistic political alternatives within the one-state framework, as Peter Beinart suggested in his earlier Jewish Currents essay. These must be infused with the political realism necessary to obtain a substantial Knesset majority. The arrangements must be palatable both to the Right in Israel, which largely rejects a two-state solution, and to the Left, which wants a two-state solution or at least separation from the Palestinians. Will that mean annexation? Most certainly yes. But it will also mean equal rights for all the Palestinians annexed.
The Trump Plan could herald a more permanent diplomatic engagement with the Arab and Muslim world, but only if everyone remembers the Palestinians. The temporary suspension of annexation is likely to be a red herring, distracting Netanyahu’s opponents into continuing to cling to their dogmatic two-state thinking. Increasingly, they are breaking into historical irrelevancy. The two-state solution requires both parties to agree, and neither has made a convincing case it will. Therefore, it is imperative to come up with a reasonable alternative for Palestinians that is beneficial to all the peoples of the area. Regional Israeli and Palestinian governments in a joint federation would be the appropriate combination of self-determination, economic empowerment, and equal rights.
This piece was written with Emanuel Shahaf. Emanuel is co-chair of the (Israel) Federation Movement, served as a member of the intelligence community in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, and recently published Identity: The Quest for Israel’s Future.