Now that Israel’s election is behind us, the combination of potential Likud partners such as the Union of Right-Wing Parties (URWP) presenting demands for joining the coalition and the increasing chatter about the potential imminent release of the Trump peace initiative means that annexation is in the air. URWP has already floated annexation in return for immunity from prosecution for Prime Minister Netanyahu and other MKs, and the Trump administration’s repeated refusal to endorse a two-state concept and its public comments about improving quality of life for Palestinians point to an initiative that will give Israel sovereignty over parts of the West Bank while Palestinians are left with a grab bag of economic benefits. With the annexation writing on the wall, there is an argument to be made that supporting — or at the very least, not vociferously opposing — partial annexation is a sensible policy to adopt. After all, if annexation is confined to the large settlement blocs along the Green Line that will presumably be kept by Israel in any permanent status agreement with the Palestinians, it doesn’t change any facts on the ground; relieves some of the pressure on Netanyahu in dealing with the annexationists who want to take all of Area C or the entire West Bank; and reflects the dominant view in Israel that there is no viable Palestinian partner and that Israel should not be captive to Palestinian intransigence when dealing with areas of Jewish residence that are well within the Israeli consensus, such as Ma’ale Adumin and Gush Etzion.
To see why this is a risky argument to make, one need look only as far as this week’s news that the Israeli government is frantically trying to avert a crisis of its own making with the Palestinian Authority. In February, Israel implemented new Knesset legislation and began to deduct the amount of money that the PA pays to families of dead terrorists and to prisoners convicted by Israel of terrorism from the tax revenues it collects and transfers to the PA on its behalf, withholding $138 million a month. For a government whose monthly budget was about $446 million, this was a serious blow to its revenues, and it was compounded by the PA telling Israel that it would not accept the reduction; it would take all of the tax revenues or none of them. Israel stood firm and the PA then precipitously slashed its monthly budget to $189 million and cut salaries in half for 160,000 PA officials, including members of the PA security forces. Recognizing the danger of the PA collapsing amidst a budgetary crisis and a subsequent Hamas takeover of the West Bank, Israel secretly transferred $182 million to PA bank accounts, which the PA rejected and returned to Israel with a reinforced message that it will only accept the full amount of tax revenues collected on its behalf. Netanyahu and his erstwhile and likely future finance minister Moshe Kahlon are now scrambling to figure out a solution to a problem that the IDF and security establishment warned about but were disregarded, since Netanyahu — as much as he wants everyone to believe that the PA is an unrepentant terrorist organization through and through — is terrified of causing the PA’s collapse and being the person actually responsible for turning the West Bank into Gaza.
Support for partial annexation of major settlement blocs relies on the assumption that it won’t fundamentally alter any major components of the status quo, and that the PA will continue to take responsibility for Palestinian areas of the West Bank. The argument is that the PA has become reliant on the corrupt kleptocracy it has installed and is too self-interested to ever abandon it or put its own position at risk by standing on principle. But the PA’s response to the move to dock its tax revenues based on its system of martyr payments shows that this assumption is resting on shaky ground. Proponents of the Knesset legislation made the same calculation that the PA would not follow through on its self-damaging threats, and yet the PA is doing precisely that, demonstrating a newfound willingness to risk imploding in the face of external pressures rather than be paid off to continue cooperating with Israel irrespective of how much the Israeli government shifts the contours of the facts on the ground.
There is every reason to assume that if Israel unilaterally annexes settlement blocs, the PA will not take it lying down. And whereas before there were no data points to back this theory up with supporting evidence beyond informed speculation, now there is an ongoing example of the PA calling Israel’s bluff. If Israel annexes blocs and the PA makes the calculation that it is better off handing Israel responsibility for everything than to continue administering the territory it has left while Israel officially rejects the Oslo framework of negotiations, then partial annexation will end up being a fuller annexation than most of its proponents ever want. Taking Beitar Illit will also mean taking Balata, and rather than annexing a little bit of land with the fewest Palestinians, Israel will end up taking all of the land with all of the Palestinians.
But even if you reject this analysis and think that the PA will never go so far as to fold, that it will never willingly give up power, and that its response to annexation of blocs that contain few to no Palestinians will be all bark and no bite, there is another reason why partial annexation would be monumentally damaging. The argument that Israel is not doing anything drastic by formally annexing territory that everyone knows it will keep in a deal anyway only takes the Israeli side of that argument into account. It does not take into account the Palestinian side of that argument, and it is bizarre to pretend that Newton’s Third Law will not kick in and create an equal and opposite reaction. After all, if Israel argues that there is no barrier to skipping the negotiating process and acting upon things that everyone knows will happen anyway, the end result of a negotiating process would also result in a Palestinian state and thus there should be no barrier to other countries recognizing an independent Palestine and having it join the United Nations. Israel has consistently called for harsh consequences should the Palestinians attempt to circumvent negotiations in order to declare a state, and that avenue of reasoning will be permanently closed to Israel if it moves ahead with partial annexation outside of a negotiations framework.
The arguments for partial annexation can sound reasonable given the right spin. In reality, they are anything but, and those who advance them are playing with fire and gambling that it will not burn Israel in the end.