Yesterday, July 1, was the date that has been circled on many calendars in Israel and the United States since the coalition agreement reached between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Benny Gantz set it as the starting line for annexation to move forward. It has been clear for weeks that July 1 was not a deadline, but the first day of a larger window in which annexation might be carried out, and remarks by various government officials from Netanyahu on down indicate that the timeframe for potential moves remains the next few months.
The possible costs of annexation, should it happen, have been debated for months. The IDF has been preparing for outbreaks of violence, and has been adjusting to the new situation on the ground where Palestinian Authority security forces continue to maintain a policy of deconfliction with Israeli troops but security cooperation has ceased. The Israeli government has been absorbing warnings from all sides about the potential costs to its relationship with different actors, from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates to European countries to Congressional Democrats to American Jews, if annexation moves forward. These deliberations and admonitions all rest on the assumption that annexation is a point of departure; if it happens then the potential costs kick in, and if it doesn’t then the drawbacks will be avoided.
This may be true on some counts, but not on all. One of the underappreciated aspects of the annexation saga is how much the consideration of annexation has inflicted damage in its own right. Because upending the formal status of West Bank territory is such a leap forward and unprecedentedly inflammatory, Netanyahu’s constant annexation pledges, the annexation map included in the Trump plan, and the pressure from the Israeli right to apply sovereignty irrespective of what the U.S. or anyone else thinks about it have set processes into motion that will not be easily undone, no matter the eventual outcome. The two arenas where this danger looms largest are the Palestinian Authority and American Jews.
The PA has responded to the threat of annexation in unprecedented ways. Mahmoud Abbas’s threat to end security cooperation with Israel was derided as the latest in a string of previously empty ones, but it turned out that this time Abbas was not bluffing. Not only has security coordination been halted, but cooperation and contacts with Israel have been suspended in all areas and at all levels. Abbas also took a significant step further and refused to accept any taxes collected by Israel on the PA’s behalf and suspended salaries for all PA employees, creating a proximate risk of PA collapse. How these measures get walked back and coordination resumes is an open question, since these suspensions were driven by factors that will not go away even if annexation does not take place.
Abbas made his decision in the face not of annexation itself, but in the face of serious consideration and public talk of Israel taking this step. If Netanyahu announces tomorrow that annexation is not taking place, it will not be presented as being definitively taken off the table. It will be presented as something that for a variety of reasons cannot happen now, and is therefore being postponed but certainly not canceled. Annexation as a policy issue is here to stay, and therefore the factors that led Abbas to destabilize the situation inside the PA are here to stay as well. Walking this all back will be no easy task, if it can even still be done, as there is a real possibility that Abbas is beyond the point of no return. The increasing volume of the annexation debate, the Trump plan, and Gantz’s waffling on the issue all painted Abbas into a corner. Annexation might hasten the actual explosion, but the fuse has been lit and is burning.
There is a related dynamic on the American Jewish front. The number of events held, op-eds written, and letters and statements issued on annexation from American Jewish organizations, American Jewish leaders, and American Jewish opinion shapers has reached a fever pitch. The volume and intensity strongly suggests that the annexation debate has consumed American Jews more than Israeli ones. It has also led some American Jews who have been quieter or more reticent about voicing their displeasure with Israeli policies in the past to speak out more forcefully and cover new ground. This may be a temporary blip that disappears if annexation does not happen, but I’d bet against that. It seems that an invisible wall has been breached, and the American Jewish relationship with Israel is going to transform in ways that may be smaller in some quarters and larger in others, but will nonetheless be significant.
More saliently, the annexation debate is changing American Jewish perceptions of how to talk about Israel. One of the sacred cows of American Jewish discourse has been that nothing can be imposed on Israelis and Palestinians from the outside and that everything must be negotiated between the two parties. This goes beyond support for two states, since it has traditionally been an insistence designed to protect Israel from having solutions imposed on it by international bodies or unfriendly world leaders.
Now, however, that foundational principle of the American pro-Israel community has been turned on its head, as the rhetorical choice now is to throw it out entirely, argue that new circumstances dictate that it no longer applies, or acknowledge that Israel is debating violating it in the clearest possible way. People can twist themselves into rhetorical pretzels in insisting that the Trump plan is a viable two-state solution and thus does not contradict support for two states, but there really is no way out of the bilateral negotiations trap while annexation is on the table. As with the dynamic within the PA, annexation itself will make this all much worse, but the debate itself has wreaked plenty of damage. The way many American Jews look at Israel following its contemplation of annexation has changed, and that will not change if Netanyahu ultimately does not follow through.
The maxim of not playing with fire since you might get burned could not be more appropriate here. If the Israeli government reverses course, it will blunt some of the larger and more potentially catastrophic consequences that could arise if Israel annexes West Bank territory. But in so seriously contemplating doing it, plenty of damage has already been done.