Over the weekend, the New York Times’ David Halbfinger published an interview with U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman that squarely placed the issue of Israeli partial annexation of the West Bank on the table. Asked how the U.S. would respond to Israeli annexation, Friedman responded, “Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank,” and added, “Certainly Israel’s entitled to retain some portion of it.” Many understandably view Friedman’s position as the first step in a process that will lead to American approval and legitimation of, if not outright advocacy for, Israeli annexation of settlement blocs, and his interview prompted a storm of reactions both supportive and condemnatory. I wrote last month why partial annexation would be a policy disaster, but there is a political component to this argument as well, and it can be seen even more clearly since Friedman’s comments, which were no less alarming by dint of their being wholly unsurprising.
A bipartisan consensus on Israel still exists in some corners, but it is becoming increasingly hard to find. Setting aside the pure Trump variable, in which he has in many ways become a stand-in for Israel and Israel has become a stand-in for him, the shattering of what used to be a large bipartisan space is a function of two other complementary factors; starker and more strident policy positions related to Israel, and a political incentive to use Israel as a campaign issue in response to demands from the base. These dynamics are taking place in both parties, and partial annexation feeds into both of them directly in enormously unhelpful ways.
Democrats have almost universally wanted to avoid a fight on Israel. It makes them uncomfortable on policy, as their instinct is to support Israel’s security as a critical and deserving ally but they find it hard to ignore Israel’s various misdeeds in the Palestinian arena. It makes them uncomfortable politically, as they are squeezed between a pro-Israel legacy and a donor class that is more supportive of Israel on one side and an activist base that is far more critical of Israel and American support for it on the other. So far, however, Democrats have largely held the line on policy because the politics have not overwhelmed them. Aside from Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, there is no support in Congress for BDS. Efforts to cut back American military aid to Israel have gotten little traction. Democrats still travel to Israel and meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu and other members of the government in large numbers and with great frequency.
Partial annexation of settlement blocs threatens to create a tipping point that changes the political incentive structure away from constructive engagement with Israel and toward harsher criticism twinned with policies that will carry real costs for Israel. Annexation of blocs is not something that will slip under the radar with minimal detection, and it is not something that is viewed in the U.S., as it is in Israel, as simply formalizing an arrangement that everyone knows will be realized in the aftermath of a peace deal anyway. Because places like Ma’ale Adumin and Gush Etzion are firmly within the Israeli Jewish consensus, it is easy for Israelis to miss that the rest of the world, including Israel’s friends in the U.S., views Israel’s unilaterally annexing blocs outside the framework of a negotiated settlement as a revolutionary move that upends the entire framework of Israeli-Palestinian peace. The position that acceptance of land swaps as a concept means that Israel can do away with the entire process and skip ahead to the end of the line is going to open the door to political problems for Israel that most Israelis seem not to grasp.
A sneak preview of this was unveiled on Tuesday when Pete Buttigieg gave his first foreign policy address of his presidential campaign and specifically called out partial annexation as a move that should trigger an American response. In speaking about the importance of a two-state solution, Buttigieg warned, “And if Prime Minister Netanyahu makes good on his promise to annex West Bank settlements, he should know that a President Buttigieg would take steps to ensure that American taxpayers won’t help foot the bill.”
What precisely Buttigieg meant by that is unclear. He may have been threatening to cut or freeze existing military assistance to Israel if annexation takes place, something that may seem like it should be entirely under Congress’s purview but would be reminiscent of President Trump’s freeze and eventual cancellation of aid designated for the West Bank and Gaza as a result of his unhappiness with the Palestinian Authority. He may have been saying that he would condition how military assistance can be utilized, as annexation would bring with it additional security costs of building a new barrier, or the far greater costs of policing the entire West Bank if partial annexation leads to the collapse of the PA. He may have just been making the point that the U.S. should not be expected to entertain any future requests for additional assistance that arise out of costs that go along with annexation.
But whatever Buttigieg meant, the takeaway is that a leading Democratic presidential contender – one who is viewed as a moderate, as pro-Israel, and someone who has gone out of his way in the past to defend Israel and Israelis – sees a clear political benefit in challenging Israel over annexation. It is naïve to think that this will be confined to Buttigieg, either among presidential hopefuls or among Democrats writ large. Rather than U.S. assistance to Israel being the rhetorical equivalent of a motion that passes with unanimous consent, it is now going to be an open question that is asked of politicians, brought up at presidential debates, and everyone will be forced to defend a position on it one way or the other. This will also not be confined to the halls of Congress and the campaign trail. Making annexation a central plank of Israel’s politics and diplomacy is going to create protests against Israel on college campuses and in progressive enclaves around the country, and the BDS movement will be the greatest political beneficiary as it convinces more and more people that the problem to be solved is not the occupation but Israel itself.
Nothing about this benefits Israel, and it is entirely a result of Netanyahu and right-wing Israeli politicians advocating West Bank annexation, and American officials consistently refusing to voice opposition to it and implying that they will support it. This cannot be blamed on radical progressive politicians, the BDS crowd, anti-Semitic leftists, champions of intersectionality, or any of the other usual suspects that are rounded up and brought before the rhetorical Star Chamber when aid to Israel is challenged. The incessant push for annexation has political consequences, and it is entirely the fault of the pushers, who won’t be satisfied until they have brought the calamity to pass.
The irony of all this is that the annexation talk is not only creating pushback among Democrats, but is reinforcing support for two states that was assumed to be entirely dormant among Republicans. After returning from Israel last month, Senate Foreign Relations Middle East subcommittee chairman Mitt Romney said that he saw no alternative to two states, which notably came right on the heels of Netanyahu’s campaign promise to apply sovereignty to all of the settlements no matter how large or small. Despite reported pressure from the Israeli government to disavow two states, Lindsey Graham this week also reiterated his support for two states and is expected to co-sponsor a Senate resolution with Chris Van Hollen explicitly endorsing a two-state framework.
If the Israeli government and supporters of partial annexation assume that this will be a politically cost-free move, all signs are pointing in the other direction. And much as with the policy implications, once partial annexation actually happens, turning back the clock on the new political realities is going to be next to impossible.