Opposing Annexation Is Not Enough

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Op-ed by Lara Friedman, published in Times of Israel, September 13, 2019.

Almost since the start of the Trump Administration there has been speculation that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might annex all or part of the West Bank. Proving the speculation well-founded, Netanyahu announced earlier this week — in what some insist was an election stunt, and others see as a statement of real intent — that he will move forward with annexing the Jordan Valley, if he retains his job after the Sept. 17th elections.

In response, many experts, pundits, and ostensible peace advocates – both in the US and Israel – raised the alarm, arguing that annexation will harm Israel’s security, undermine Israel’s democracy, destroy Israel’s Jewish character and the Zionist dream, or further erode the prospects for peace.

So we know what they are against, and why. What is less clear is what many of them are for – and therein lies the rub.

For many if not most people speaking out today, opposition to annexation doesn’t equal a demand for real change in Israeli policies vis-à-vis the West Bank and the Palestinians who live there – policies that already amount to annexation.

Rather, opposition to Israel’s potential annexation of a large swathe of land in the West Bank seems to stem from a fear of losing the prevailing paradigm — the one  which holds that the West Bank is still held in a state of “temporary occupation,” with its permanent status to be resolved someday, but only through negotiations.

This occupation paradigm still stands, 52 years after the 1967 War and 26 years after the start of the Oslo peace process, despite the fact that it has become nothing more than a fig leaf covering up Israel’s de facto annexation of the West Bank.

That fig leaf has proven invaluable to those who want to shield Israel from criticism for its policies and inoculate Israel from concrete pressure to change its behavior. It has been central to the narrative that delegitimizes those who do strongly criticize Israeli policies and who do seek to mobilize tangible pressure. And it has supported the twisted logic that not only absolves people from taking a hard stance against Israeli policies, but justifies them attacking anyone who does.

For years, “pragmatic” and “moderate” voices (many of the same ones now opposing annexation) have insisted that – for the sake of ending the occupation – Israeli actions that transformed occupation into annexation must be accommodated rather than criticized (like the normalization of Israeli demands to annex the “settlement blocs” and the “seam zone”).

They have argued that criticism of Israel’s West Bank policies must be tamped down (arguing that while Israeli actions may undermine the two-state solution, it is more productive to focus on the bad actions of the Palestinians and working to bring them back to the negotiating table).

And they have attacked calls to impose concrete consequences on Israel for its policies (based on the logic that holding the Israeli people in any way responsible for the actions of their elected leaders is unjust, counterproductive, and almost certainly antisemitic).

Today, with the fig leaf of “temporary occupation” as cover, pragmatic “pro-peace” voices continue to insist – against all evidence – that the only way to restrain Israeli policies in the West Bank is through ending the occupation itself, which can only come through negotiations. And subjecting Israel to too much pressure for these same policies will make the return to such negotiations less likely, and the achievement of an end to occupation more difficult.

Never mind that “temporary occupation”  has lasted for more than half a century. Never mind that the fig leaf of calling it “temporary occupation” has been exploited by Israel as cover for already annexing the West Bank in virtually every way except, arguably, the least important one – that is, in name.

Never mind that as a matter of Israeli practice, policy, and increasingly law, Israel today spans from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

Never mind that for decades Israel has implemented polices designed to cater to Israeli citizens who openly seek to displace Palestinians and ensure permanent Israeli control over the West Bank. Never mind that it has done so, at the expense of the Palestinians, without paying any price or facing any real pushback from the world.

And above all, never mind that, irrespective of the term you choose to use to describe it, in the West Bank today the situation is quite simple: Palestinians are disenfranchised, second-class subjects of the same sovereign government that rules over Israelis on both sides of the Green Line (even if in limited areas Israeli rule is mediated through a Palestinian Authority whose “authority” is ultimately subordinate to Israel). There’s a word for such a situation — it starts with an “A” (and it’s not just “annexation”).

The fiction of “temporary occupation” is so thin today that the lights of thousands of new settlement homes twinkle cheerfully through it. This includes lights from Israeli homes built on Palestinian land seized after the Knesset — that bastion of Israeli democracy, accountable only to Israelis voters, but regularly legislating the fate of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank –- last year passed a law allowing Israel to literally erase Palestinian private property rights, for the benefit of Israeli settlers.

This fiction is negated by the ongoing Israeli global campaign demanding that the world treat settlements as indistinguishable from pre-1967 Israel (and labeling those who refuse to do so antisemites and Nazis).

This fiction is contradicted by right-wing Israeli ministers who proudly declare that Israel will never leave the West Bank.

And this fiction is gleefully erased by an Israeli Prime Minister who makes his intentions clear – not just with words but with consistent policies and actions spanning his record-long tenure in office – and by Israeli “centrist” political leaders who make clear that they, too, support annexation.

For too long, too many people have allowed the rhetoric of peace to be emptied of meaning. For too long, too many people have deluded themselves, or have sought to deceive others, into believing that giving lip service to supporting a negotiated two-state solution can substitute for taking concrete, often difficult stands against Israeli policies that violate basic notions of human rights, civil rights, property rights and international law, and that are literally designed to destroy the possibility of a negotiated solution.

Likewise, too many people are today deluding themselves, or deceiving others, into thinking that speaking out against annexation is, on its own, equivalent to fighting for peace. In reality, if one refuses to meaningfully challenge the  policies that have already made annexation a reality, speaking out against Israel officially annexing West Bank land amounts to little more than an effort to preserve the fig leaf of occupation, so that it can continue to give cover to those who want to keep enabling and defending Israel’s ever-expanding, ever-deepening annexationist status quo.