When it comes to large policy shifts, the overriding impulse is to focus on what will take place on day one. If the sky doesn’t immediately fall, it is viewed as a sign that any warnings or concerns were wrong, overblown, or hysterical. We humans tend to fall prey to our impulse for immediate gratification, making it difficult to avoid the short term crowding out the long term, or the immediate crowding out the urgent or important.
This dynamic takes place all the time in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no matter what your politics and preferences are on the issue. If one camp predicts catastrophic results from a specific policy and they don’t immediately manifest, the other camp seizes upon this evidence to argue that the policy itself was flawless. The most high profile example of this is American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv. Many people (very much including me) incorrectly predicted that one of the consequences would be large scale violence that would create a real tradeoff between righting a historic wrong and causing unnecessary loss of life. When the predicted violence did not happen, the immediate reaction was to point to those who had warned about downsides and dismiss their concerns and analysis as silly pearl-clutching.
The criticism was both warranted and earned, and those who got it wrong (again, including me) needed to take a step back and try to determine why. But there were two parts to the Jerusalem predictions. One was what would happen on the day after, and one was what would in the medium and long term. Everyone focused on the immediate, because that is easy and is right in front of our faces. But the long term predictions of those who were worried about the Jerusalem decision – that it would lead the Palestinians to harden their positions and make U.S. engagement with the Palestinians nearly impossible on anything going forward – were as correct as the short term predictions of violence were incorrect. Because we tend to look at the most easily available evidence, you still constantly see snarky asides about all the people who predicted violence that never happened, yet you rarely see the same spotlight turned on the people who predicted both that no violence would break out and that the Palestinians would get over it in a week or two.
What happens in the short term is important. The immediate consequences do not get walled off from any longer term impacts, as there is a measure of path dependency. What happens after one day will in part determine what happens after one week, one month, one year. But policies also take a long time to wend their way through the system – I always think of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s controversial claim that Roe v. Wade impacted the nationwide drop in crime 18 years later because it is such a stark example – and it is critical not to stop paying attention after the very first stage.
This is an important point to keep at the back of your mind as annexation potentially unfolds. The greatest pushback against Israel applying sovereignty to the West Bank is coming from Israel’s security establishment, including new voices to this debate not viewed as dedicated two-staters such as Amos Gilad and immediate past Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen. There are concerns about unrest in the West Bank, the cessation of security coordination with the Palestinian Authority or the PA’s outright collapse, downgraded relations with Jordan, and general upheaval around the region. Maybe these things will happen as soon as Israel announces annexation of territory and maybe they won’t. I know enough to say that I don’t know.
But assume for the moment that what unfolds looks much like the aftermath of the Jerusalem recognition announcement. There are no protests, the PA continues to keep basic quiet in the West Bank even if security relations with Israel retain their current downgraded status, Jordan loudly protests but ultimately does nothing to tangibly make the border with Israel any more of a concern, and the European Union cannot agree on any unified response. The chorus of voices arguing that annexation is a nearly cost-free endeavor will reach a crescendo, accompanied by countless articles speculating that Israel has so thoroughly beaten the Palestinians that it can dictate the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by itself. This, incidentally, is a scenario that probably has a 50/50 chance of unfolding.
Analysis such as this will be tempting to accept, but it will be woefully incomplete. Annexation should be judged by the results on day one, but also by the results after time passes and all of the other relevant actors adjust to a new reality and update their behavior accordingly. The greater likelihood is not that annexation causes the apocalypse as soon as new West Bank roads are under the authority of the Transportation Ministry rather than the IDF, but that its most corrosive impacts unfold over time. Assessing the success or failure of annexation based on what happens right away would be like assessing the success or failure of an interest rate cut on a country’s economy after one week.
Annexation may not collapse the PA on day one, but it will absolutely erode its authority and stability over time, increasing the likelihood that Israel eventually has to take responsibility for the entire West Bank. Annexation will not mark the end of Israeli democracy on day one, but it will increasingly lead the rest of the world to view Israel as less democratic. Annexation will not lead to a wave of crushing sanctions against Israel on day one, but it will ensure the BDS movement’s staying power and fuel its growth and accepted legitimacy. Annexation will not lead to the instant reversal of gains that Israel has made with neighboring Arab states on day one, but it will arrest those achievements and make them harder to sustain even at their current levels over time. Annexation will not end Democratic Party support for Israel on day one, but it will turn what is currently a fringe grassroots movement into a wider one that increasingly impacts national politics. Annexation will not cause an irreparable breach between Israel and American Jews on day one, but it will lead more American Jews to question their connection to Israel and the importance of a Zionism that elevates the Jewish aspect of the state over the democratic one.
None of these things can be properly assessed in the immediate aftermath of annexation, either by those who support it or by those who oppose it. But just because there is no immediate reckoning does not mean that there will not be one in the offing. What makes annexation a particularly risky move is that by the time its full cost and impact can be evaluated, it will be too late to reverse course.