United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba’s op-ed in Yedioth Ahronoth warning that West Bank annexation will set back ties between Israel and Sunni Arab states and prevent normalization from going forward has presented the Trump administration and the Israeli government with a dilemma. The White House’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has been predicated from the very beginning on buy-in from other regional actors, and indications are that the Trump team’s initial strategy for a peace plan was an outside-in formula; use an agreement between Israel and Arab states to then pave the way for one between Israel and the Palestinians. Between Al Otaiba’s op-ed and repeated warnings from Jordanian officials, it is clear that the annexation piece of the Trump plan is preventing the buy-in that the administration craved.
The Israeli government has a starker problem. One of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s frequent refrains is that improved relations between Israel and Arab states are not only to his credit but inevitable going forward, and that nothing that Israel does with respect to the Palestinians will derail them. As Rob Satloff relayed in a policy brief last week, Israeli officials have argued not only that Arab states do not oppose annexation but that they actually welcome it. In addition, King Abdullah of Jordan explicitly told members of Congress this week that Israeli annexation is unacceptable to Jordan and will erode regional stability. Israeli spokespeople are now in the awkward position of asking American policymakers to believe that what they hear directly from Arab states is not true, and that Israeli claims about what Arab governments believe are the relevant information to take into account.
Former Trump administration Middle East negotiator Jason Greenblatt responded in the Jerusalem Post to Al Otaiba’s op-ed, and his missive was revealing in how the Trump plan’s architects are pivoting away from their initial claims about annexation and constructing new ones in light of loud public opposition from Arab states. The old claim was that nobody will complain about or dispute annexation. The new one is more honest. About the West Bank, Greenblatt wrote, “It is land that is disputed, and the only way to resolve this is if the two sides can negotiate a settlement of the dispute directly together. But that has proven to be elusive. This is one of the main reasons we drafted the vision for peace in the manner that we did.”
The self-contradiction inherent in this line of thinking is glaring. The first part conforms to the position that everyone has always taken – the Israelis, the Palestinians, the U.S., the international community. Whether or not you think the West Bank is occupied or disputed, the one thing that everyone agreed upon was that its ultimate disposition had to be negotiated between the two sides. The Trump plan boldly stated that this, in fact, no longer had to be the case as Israel was free to annex 30% of it up front, and the White House claimed that this was a result of changed circumstances where everyone but the Palestinians had moved on. Now that it is clear that everyone has not moved on, we get to the second part of Greenblatt’s argument, which is that because getting an agreement has been impossible so far, the idea of negotiating over the territory no longer applies and the Trump administration view is that Israel is free to do as it pleases. In other words, negotiations are required for disputed territory, until the Trump administration and the Trump administration alone says they aren’t. This is the verbal equivalent of the shrugging emoji.
The phrase for this is not realistic peacemaking. It is radical unilateralism. And it will undoubtedly have consequences. Some of those consequences are being telegraphed ahead of time, such as warnings about downgraded ties between Israel and Jordan, or the rolling back of the clear signs of thaw between Israel and regional states with which Israel does not have formal relations or peace treaties. As Al Otaiba pointed out, the lack of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not prevented Israeli diplomats from operating in Abu Dhabi or Israel from being invited to Dubai’s 2021 World Expo, but annexation implicitly threatens those types of activities precisely because it is such a radical departure.
But there are other responses to radical unilateralism that most people have not yet contemplated, despite the fact that they are not necessarily remote or far-fetched. Greenblatt’s argument that the elusiveness of a successful agreement means that the basic premise of negotiating over the West Bank no longer holds is only one side of the equation, as it applies solely to Israel’s desired outcome of formally absorbing parts of the West Bank into Israel. On the other side of ostensible negotiations is the Palestinian desire for an independent state. If the argument is that because negotiations have not been successful, Israel can now jump straight to the endpoint and annex territory over which it has not been able to convince the Palestinians to relinquish their claim, it stands to reason that the same should apply to the Palestinians. Israel has always insisted that a Palestinian state can only be declared and recognized following a negotiated agreement, but the radical unilateralism of annexation paves the way for the radical unilateralism of recognizing a Palestinian state. It is the logical equivalent action to recognizing Israeli annexation in the West Bank.
This will strike some as an outrageous proposition, but it is an option that will definitely be contemplated should annexation go forward. It is already openly discussed by European states, and will undoubtedly begin to influence policy discussions in the U.S. as well. This is the problem with throwing out the approach that requires some manner of consent from conflicting parties and embracing radical unilateralism. It may seem like Israel will capture all of the benefits as the stronger party and the one with the Trump administration in its corner, but it will ultimately boomerang back around. Those who support moving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into this new unilateral paradigm may come to regret it once they realize the full implications.