Why Netanyahu Won’t Annex the West Bank

Look to Iran.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a security check point in the West Bank, February 6 (GPO/Haim Zach)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declared intention to annex the West Bank has sparked intense debate in Israel. Although many Israelis seem to favor annexation, the consensus among security experts, including military professionals, is that such a move would have severe negative repercussions for the Jewish state’s security, its standing in the world and the prospects of peace with the Palestinians.

They fear Netanyahu will pander to right-wing voters, emboldened by the American president, Donald Trump, whose own peace plan would allow Israel to annex up to 30 percent of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, in exchange for ceding territories on the Egyptian border to a Palestinian state. (A part of the plan Netanyahu has, unsurprisingly, said nothing about.)

The consequences of annexation could be grave. Risks include:

  1. Triggering mass Palestinian demonstrations and renewed terrorist attacks, possibly a third Intifada.
  2. Hurting Israel’s foreign and trade relations, particularly with Europe, its largest trading partner.
  3. Severing the close but fragile relations Israel has forged with many Arab states.
  4. Accentuating the apartheid-like characteristics of Israel’s rule over the Palestinian-Arab population and providing ammunition to the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
  5. Fracturing Israel’s strained relations with Jordan, possibly causing the latter to cancel the peace treaty. King Abdullah (who reportedly dislikes Netanyahu with a passion) has already said that annexation would lead to a “major clash”.
  6. Causing tension in American-Israeli relations, particularly if President Trump is not reelected. Presidential candidate Joe Biden has voiced concerns about annexation.
  7. Changing demographics, turning the Jewish state into a binational state by forcing Israel to absorb and grant citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. The fear is that this would end either Israel’s Jewish or its democratic character.

So far, pro-annexation voices have brushed these warnings aside, arguing that the rest of the international community will ultimately accept Israel’s legal, security and moral arguments. Apart from some meaningless diplomatic “slaps on the wrist,” they are confident the world will do little to oppose annexation. The Palestinian Authority will not put up a fight, because it is too weak. The Arab states won’t punish Israel, because they share a common interest in containing Iran.

Given this confidence, and the sway pro-annexation supporters enjoy over Israel’s current government, it seems likely that at least some steps toward annexation (possibly of the Jewish settlements around Jerusalem and the Gush Etzion area) will be taken. Netanyahu’s rhetoric so far seems to suggest this as well.

But there is one reason Netanyahu might reconsider. A factor which is currently overlooked by most analysts, and which has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict per se — Iran.

The Iranian factor

Israel and Iran have been at each other’s throats for years. The countries have been waging a persistent intelligence and military battle — which has intensified under the cover of COVID-19 — with Israel attacking Iranian targets in Syria and elsewhere and Iran continuing to build its proxy forces to surround Israel. Only two weeks ago, the two were locked in an alarming cyber battle.

While Iran figures prominently in Israeli calculations, the struggle with Iran is nothing new. Israel is also adept at waging war on multiple fronts. So why should Iran affect Netanyahu’s decision on the West Bank?

Any kind of meaningful annexation is sure to attract international attention. It would likely ignite heated protests, not only in the tightly-monitored West Bank but also in Gaza, where Hamas and other extremist groups could seize the opportunity to divert public anger away from their pilfering of public resources and toward Israel (and the ineffective Palestinian Authority). This may take the form of protests along the Israeli-Gaza border that posed a significant tactical challenge to the Israeli military in 2018-19. Similar unrest can be expected on Israel’s northern border, where Iranian-backed Hezbollah is suffering its own crisis. The group could use annexation as a pretext to launch an attack. It has already become more aggressive in the last few weeks.

Even if these fears turn out to be exaggerated, Israel’s military and intelligence services still need to prepare for the worst. That would mean diverting resources that are currently invested in monitoring and thwarting Iranian activities in the Middle East.

Israel can maintain an intense counter-Iranian effort or it steel itself for another Palestinian Intifada. It can’t do both. This lessons was learned during the Second Intifada in 2000-04. Then, the IDF’s preparation and redirection of resource to quash the Palestinian uprising left it unprepared to fight the more organized Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.

Netanyahu knows this. When it comes to Iran, he has not only shown perseverance (when others downplayed the threat) but an uncanny pragmatism.

Since 2014, when Israeli forces last entered Gaza on a large scale, Hamas has launched thousands of rockets and improvised explosive balloons and raised its demands for ceasing such attacks. Yet Netanyahu has repeatedly resisted political pressure — including from within his own conservative party — to order the IDF to invade Gaza.

Instead, he has opted for deescalation, engaged in talks with the militants and even agreed, in a highly controversial move, to transfer millions of dollars in cash to Hamas. Most recently, Netanyahu allowed the Arab Gulf states to ship much-needed medical supplies to Gaza, helping Hamas stave off a public-health crisis.

With Iran suffering under a severe economic and public-health crisis of its own, Israel now has an opportunity to push back harder, for example to finally end Iran’s presence in Syria. Senior Israeli officials seem confident this can be achieved.

It seems highly unlikely that Netanyahu would choose this moment to scale back Israel’s anti-Iran strategy and divert the world’s attention to the West-Bank.

The ideologue versus the strategist

Netanyahu’s critics fear that he is committed to an ultra-nationalist ideology of a “Greater Israel”, which will cause him to ignore the strategic repercussions of annexation. Incorporating the West Bank into Israel would certainly leave Netanyahu with a legacy that might eclipse the fallout of his pending criminal trials. Netanyahu, or at least some of his supporters, may also truly believe annexation will advance peace by convincing the Palestinians that time is not on their side.

Yet there are signs that, rhetoric notwithstanding, Netanyahu is not so ideologically rigid. Former right-wing supporters have turned on him, precisely because he hasn’t always kept his word. He has backtracked on promises before, for example to abrogate the Oslo accords. In more than a decade of uninterrupted rule, Netanyahu has had countless opportunities to expand Israel’s hold on the West Bank and Jordan Valley. Yet whenever pressures mounted, he held back.

No one knows what Netanyahu will do. Even the IDF remains in the dark, which seems to suggest that full annexation will not occur. Netanyahu’s supporters see the Trump peace plan as a unique chance to reshape the situation before the American presidency changes hands. An historical opportunity to radically change the terms of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship does indeed lie at Netanyahu’s feet. But it’s far from clear he wants to pick it up.