When the Trump plan was released, the president announced that a joint U.S.-Israel committee would be formed in order to oversee its implementation. It was an odd mechanism at first glance, as presumably implementation of the plan could not be carried out until there was Palestinian buy-in and such a body would have to include Palestinians as well, but it was certainly of a piece with the plan’s creation and roll out. Throughout the entire process, the Trump plan has been structured as a bilateral U.S.-Israel agreement, and thus having a bilateral U.S-Israel committee to implement it is consistent with the plan’s internal logic.
Following the disagreement between different members of the Trump administration over whether Israel was free to annex West Bank territory as soon as the plan was released – David Friedman said that Israel could do so while Jared Kushner said that Israel could not, forcing Prime Minister Netanyahu to walk back his announcement that Israel would be annexing territory and applying sovereignty immediately – the proximate purpose of the joint committee became clear. Both the U.S. and Israeli governments declared that the committee would go over the specific territory to be annexed, produce accurate and high-resolution maps rather than the vague conceptual map included in the Peace to Prosperity document, and then begin to turn the Israeli territorial gains in the Trump plan directly over to Israel outside of any negotiating context with the Palestinians. The committee to implement the Trump plan is in fact the committee to implement West Bank annexation.
If Israel is going to unilaterally annex territory with the U.S. not only nodding its head in approval but also literally signing off on the precise locations, footprints, and borders, there are a number of considerations that should logically be involved. It would be helpful to consider what land Israel contemplated annexing in previous Israeli proposals – whether with swaps or not – from the Allon plan to Ehud Barak’s Camp David proposal to Ehud Olmert’s Annapolis process map. It would be helpful to look at Israeli and Palestinian population trends and growth patterns in order to have a sense of where the greatest potential for friction between the two sides exists and where there is a large demographic imbalance in specific territorial boundaries. It would be helpful to consider what U.S. redlines have been in the past regarding settlement construction and territory, and whether those redlines were drawn for political purposes (in which they case they no longer apply) or diplomatic considerations.
Most importantly, it is critical to take security into account. The map that the Trump plan lays out and which is presumably a starting point for the committee determining precisely which areas to annex introduces a host of new variables into the situation on the ground that have never before been grappled with. The plan creates a new border for Israel that encircles the entirety of the West Bank, and creates a long stretch of Palestinian territory in the Negev that sits between Israel and Egypt. In the West Bank, this means a border of 850 miles, compared to the 440 miles of the planned route of the security barrier that Israel is currently used to and the 190 miles that is the length of the Green Line. Not only is it nearly doubling the current length of the border that Israel has to guard, much of it will be in hilly territory that is difficult to traverse and patrol.
The harder issue involves the Israeli territorial enclaves that the Trump plan creates inside of the Palestinian state but that are under Israel’s security responsibility. When the committee sits down to draw the precise territorial parameters of these enclaves, it needs to take into account security requirements to protect those enclaves, and to safeguard the roads connecting them to each other and to the rest of Israel, many of which will be traversing some of the largest Palestinian population centers. Figuring out how to do this effectively will not be easy since it is an unprecedented situation; while territorial enclaves exist in other parts of the world, they are single enclaves where the entire population is concentrated in one contiguous spot, such as Lesotho in the middle of South Africa or San Marino in the middle of Italy. There is no comparable situation to what the Trump plan envisions, of multiple enclaves scattered throughout a territory that require connection back to the larger country, and it will take serious security expertise and experience to figure out how to manage this when producing maps and logistical details for the territory to be annexed.
This all points to naming members to the joint U.S.-Israel committee that have expertise in these issues and can speak to them directly. Any plan to unilaterally annex territory has to be seen first and foremost within the context of security – whether it enhances Israeli security or erodes it, and how to counter or manage the effects of the latter. It would make sense that the committee that is going over the territory, dunam by dunam, would be drawing heavily on the IDF as the institution that knows that territory the best and what is needed to secure it. On the U.S. side, it would make sense to draw on people who have worked on the territorial issues in the past or who have been deeply involved in U.S.-Israel security issues.
The members of the committee were reported earlier this week. On the U.S. side, they are Friedman, his senior adviser Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone – a name newly familiar to many more people after officiating at Trump aide Stephen Miller’s wedding this past Sunday – and longtime State Department and National Security council official Scott Leith. On the Israeli side, they are Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat, Netanyahu’s bureau director-general Ronen Peretz, and Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer. There are two things that seem clear on the face of things based on the composition of this committee. The first is that the people who worked closely together to develop the plan are the same people who will be working to implement it. It is not getting an outside look, no assumptions will be questioned or reexamined, and any factors that were overlooked in the plan itself will be ignored again in the aftermath.
The second is that this is a committee whose aims are ideological and political, rather than practical. Some of the committee members’ qualifications to determine the territorial division of the West Bank are questionable at best, which should be alarming in a region where drawing arbitrary lines on maps has never led to positive results. But to have a committee that does not have a heavy IDF presence – indeed, where the IDF does not even have a voice at all – and is instead made up of people whose priorities are ensuring Netanyahu’s continued tenure in office or making the entire expansive settlement project permanent is a recipe for politicized policy rather than smart policy. Elections have consequences, and President Trump and Netanyahu have the absolute right to appoint anyone they desire to make these decisions. But if the committee, say, releases its map before the Israeli election on March 2, which would coincidentally benefit Netanyahu’s political fortunes, or disregards Israeli defense officials’ concerns about how the new map would adversely impact security, nobody should be surprised.
If Netanyahu is unable to form a government after the election, none of this may come to pass. If there are disagreements between the U.S. and Israel over the scope of what can be annexed and in what sequence, as has been reported, that may gum up the works as well. While the annexation ball is rolling, it has not yet reached the bottom of the hill. But if anyone had any illusions about whether annexation is being contemplated in a responsible and security-focused manner, the U.S.-Israel committee should make it crystal clear what is actually taking place.