The leader of the Jewish Home party asks Netanyahu to convene the cabinet and discuss the formal annexation of the settlements and 60 percent of the West Bank to Israel. ‘The peace talks are dead and I’m proposing an alternative.’
Formal annexation of all Israeli settlements, as well as selected parts of Area C of the West Bank (under full Israeli control) – this is Naftali Bennett’s response to the Palestinian bid to join 15 UN treaties and institutions. The proposal, based on the plan Bennett publicly championed before running for Knesset (outlined in the video below), claims that annexation would bring under formal Israeli rule some 400,000 settlers and “only several tens of thousands” of Palestinians. Bennett’s proposal is to offer these Palestinians Israeli citizenship, so as to preempt any claims that Israel is engaging in apartheid. It should be noted that in the status quo, Israeli civilian law is, de facto, applied to settlements and settlers wherever they go, while a Kafkaesque mixture of Israeli military, British and Ottoman laws are applied to Palestinians living in the same territories. This means that a Palestinian from the West Bank and a settler will never face the same court for the same offense.
The Minister of Economy – and more importantly, Netanyahu’s single greatest rival on the expansionist right – outlined the proposal in a letter to the prime minister on Wednesday night, suggesting the move be put before the cabinet as early as possible. In a later interview to Ynet, Bennett was casually dismissive about the international fallout that could ensue. “In 1967 [Prime Minister] Eshkol annexed Jerusalem. In 1981 Begin annexed the Golan Heights. The sky didn’t fall,” he said, before adding cautiously that he wouldn’t tell the U.S. to leave Israel alone, but rather advise it to concentrate on other crises, like Syria.
Even though Bennett got some surprising (read: disoriented) support from former Labor stalwart Amir Peretz, who welcomed the fact that his cabinet colleague was finally willing to talk borders, the chances that the cabinet acts on his proposal is small. Netanyahu’s overall approach is easy-does-it, and pushing the Americans even further at this point won’t serve any earthly good. And this is before we even get to Bennett’s dodgy math – the numbers he presents in his proposal are highly contested.
But there are still some important takeaways from this proposal finally being thrown into the ring, and this time by a senior minister, rather than an independent right-wing activist (even if they are the same person, two years apart).
First, that this is no gimmick: Bennett and his party, despite not having really grappled with the topic in their year in government, are still as annexationist as they ever were, and their model is still the same: give minuscule, but densely populated Area A (under full control of the Palestinian Authority) some semblance of autonomy, and annex the rest, while offering the Palestinian residents there citizenship. The use of that latter verb is crucial – Bennett relies on Palestinians refusing such an offer, thus forfeiting any formal influence over the regime that will be running their lives while absolving said regime from any responsibility for excluding them.
Second, the relatively muted reaction in political circles indicates that this proposal is not at all as outrageous as it would have been some years back; and the more it is aired by Bennett and other supporters, the more normalized it will become, at least in the Israeli discourse. Physical partition is no longer sacrosanct, and whatever else they are, annexationists – especially the more conservative ones, like Bennett – are fringe no longer.
Last but not least, Bennett is right about this much: with the last-ditch two-state process hanging by a thread, he is the only player of consequence offering a vision and an alternative. Supporters of the peace process at home and abroad refuse to counter Bennett’s idea of non-partition with one of their own, for fear of legitimizing the very notion of a single state. This tells you a lot about their own faith in the viability of a two-state solution: they seem to believe their paradigm is in such frail health that it will be snuffed out by even the most hypothetical discussion of alternatives.
The result is that, yet again, the Israeli right has taken the initiative while the left has been left behind to protest and lament. It would be good to see those in Israel and abroad who don’t share Bennett’s vision begin to at least anticipate the irretrievable change of endgame they themselves are constantly warning about, and perhaps start offering their own alternatives. Unfortunately, if peering into the abyss of a complete negotiation breakdown failed to get them thinking in this direction, it seems that nothing will.