The two-state opponents in the Israeli government have ushered in 2018 with a bang. On Sunday, the Likud Central Committee – think of it as roughly equivalent to the Republican or Democratic platform committees but with a heavy dose of actual political power – voted unanimously to call for Likud politicians to apply Israeli law and sovereignty to settlements in the West Bank. Yesterday, the Knesset passed an amendment to the Basic Law on Jerusalem requiring that any decisions to cede part of the city as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians must be approved by 80 Knesset members rather than by a simple majority. The danger of these twin moves is not that they doom the two-state solution; the first has no force of law, and the second can be instantly overturned by a vote of 61 MKs. Rather, the danger is that they represent the elevation of magical thinking on the right that refuses to grapple with the actual consequences of the policies that they espouse, and that is the greater threat to the two-state solution than the political theater that has played out this week.
Neither the Likud Central Committee vote nor the amendment to the Jerusalem Basic Law should come as a surprise. The move within Likud has been percolating for awhile as it has been driven by party activists, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has long occupied his party’s leftwing flank on this issue in his refusal to rhetorically embrace annexation of parts of the West Bank outright. The Jerusalem law has also been a matter of Knesset debate for months. The timing for both of them now has to do with politics, both internal and external.
The investigations into Netanyahu appear to be coming to a head, and the prime minister’s public comments now betray for the first time a realization that at the very least, the police are going to recommend that he be indicted. Some members of the coalition are delighted with serving in the most right-wing government in Israel’s history and do not want to upset the apple cart, while others are terrified of being eviscerated should new elections be called in the next few months. The upshot is that nobody wants to topple the government but everyone is preparing for the end of the Netanyahu era, and thus the scrambling has begun in full force among Netanyahu’s potential successors. While Netanyahu was absent himself from the Likud Central Committee vote, those hoping to replace him such as Gideon Sa’ar, Yisrael Katz, and Yuli Edelstein all showed up and gave what were essentially stump speeches. The incentives are such that anyone who wants to be the fifth leader of the Likud and follow in the footsteps of Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, and Netanyahu has to demonstrate impeccable pro-annexation credentials to be in line with the party’s base. The party grassroots activists understand this dynamic all too well, and thus they have the incentive to push for annexationist policy statements while they have a captive audience of supplicant politicians. Whether Netanyahu himself wants any of this to happen now is an afterthought, which is the clearest indicator of yet of how the Likud party apparatus views the prospects for Netanyahu’s political future.
The Jerusalem issue is also driven in part by these dynamics, but there can be little question that President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has pushed it along. The Israeli government – rightly or wrongly – is reading Trump’s move as a signal to be more aggressive about Jerusalem’s status and future, and this is only an early step in a campaign to try and shift the expectations for what Palestinians should expect with regard to Jerusalem in any future agreement. Despite Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem purposely not recognizing Israel’s claim to a unified capital that includes everything within the current municipal boundaries, the Israeli right is trying its hardest to act as if Trump actually validated its maximalist vision – an argument that is now easier to sustain following Trump’s Tuesday night tweeting. Netanyahu has in the past put the brakes on initiatives that raise eyebrows at the White House, but there is little reason given the messages coming from Washington for him to think that there is any reason to proceed with caution on efforts to keep Israel’s grip on the entirety of the Jerusalem municipality.
The other question aside from the timing is what effect this will all have. As I noted earlier, the Likud Central Committee’s pronouncements create political pressure but have no force of law, and even a more hawkish and less cautious Israeli prime minister than Netanyahu would have a difficult time annexing Area C, no matter who the American president happens to be. The supermajority requirement to cede any parts of Jerusalem is a practically meaningless gesture, since no Israeli government would ever take such a step without majority support in the Knesset, and that is the same majority support that can rescind the new supermajority requirement. But even though neither of these things will lead to any practical changes, their consequences should not be underestimated. They both represent the elevation of ideology over pragmatism and the emergence of a discourse on the right that prefers to shut its eyes to any obstacles that its policies create.
Anyone who defends a two-state solution knows that the first objection to always come up is how to guarantee Israel’s security and prevent the West Bank from turning into Gaza. It is an entirely logical and legitimate query, born from Israel’s experience over the past decade but also from an attitude that for too long consumed the Israeli left in which the potential adverse consequences of territorial withdrawal were swept under the rug rather than met head on. It was a mistake when the left did it, and it is just as big a mistake now when the right does it with annexation and Jerusalem.
Every Israeli politician who supports annexing Area C and applying Israeli law to settlements should have to explain how this will work in practice. Will Israel build a barrier encompassing only Area C? One glance at a map shows how this would be almost impossible – Area C is not one distinct part of the West Bank, but is an interconnected spider web of settlements, IDF positions, and roads – and would create a border that would be the world’s least easily militarily defensible. Will Israel grant citizenship to the 250-300,000 Palestinians living in Area C and let them move around Israel freely, despite the fact that many of the same politicians who call for annexation also describe Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem as security threats who are not sufficiently loyal to the state? Similarly, if Israel makes it impossible to ever cede parts of Jerusalem, will the Israeli government improve municipal services in East Jerusalem, or even extend basic police and garbage services to places like Shuafat that have none right now? If the Israeli government decides to expand the borders of the municipality as it did in 1967 and again in 1993, do the new areas become treated as if they were established by holy writ?
Every effort to take steps that make a single state appear inevitable must be met with an avalanche of questions about the practicality of such an approach. The idea that the West Bank can be easily annexed and that doing so is simply a matter of courageously acting upon principles cannot just be accepted at face value or met only with ideological challenges. The fantasies that the right is currently propagating are just that – fantasies. The long term danger is that too many view them as feasible plans of action. The challenge ahead is to make sure more people understand why annexing Area C would be the equivalent of jumping out of a plane without even checking to see if you have a parachute.