Netanyahu Wants to Annex the West Bank. Will Joe Biden Stop Him?

The Democratic nominee needs to be clear: the move would come with real consequences if he’s elected.

Early in my career as a U.S. diplomat in the 1980s, I was assigned the thankless task of carrying water for Israel. The mission: to lobby other nations not to vote for a number of UN General Assembly resolutions criticizing Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. Typically, these kinds of measures are passed by hugely lopsided margins. The only “No’s” generally came from Israel and the United States. If we were lucky, we might get some help from Canada or an obscure island nation we could essentially bribe with development aid.

But there were at least some glimmers of light then for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Israel had just reached a settlement with Egypt at the 1978 Camp David Accords. There was a real sense of possibility that the Middle East’s most intractable conflict could eventually be solved. That made our job much easier; we could tell other governments that there was a serious process in place. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have that job now.

Over the last 10 years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done virtually everything in his power to destroy the chances of a realistic peace agreement based on two states for two peoples—from expanding settlements and strengthening Israeli society’s most reactionary elements, to scuttling the Obama administration’s peace efforts and embracing Trump’s thinly-veiled attempts to crush the Palestinian cause and appeal to his evangelical base.

Now, Netanyahu is gearing to take his country past the point of no return: Unless the White House stops him (don’t hold your breath), the Israeli premier will begin unilaterally annexing all of the settlements and the entire Jordan Valley—the some 30 percent of the West Bank that the Trump administration allocated to Israel in its so-called “peace plan”—on July 1.

Of course, one could argue that that is the logical culmination of everything Netanyahu and Trump have done for the last three-and-a-half years, including moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, cutting off aid to the Palestinians, and publicly stating that America doesn’t view the settlements as a violation of international law.

But it is still hard for anyone such as myself, who once worked on the Mideast peace portfolio, not to recoil at all the obvious ramifications. The move risks spurring a violent uprising in the Middle East. It endangers Israel and Jordan. It will ruin Israel’s quest to normalize ties with its Arab neighbors, who share a common threat against Iran, and certainly strain its relations with Europe, the United States, and most of diaspora Jewry. Worse yet: If the two-state solution is not already dead, this will only bury it.

That would be a tragedy both for Israel and for Palestine. Even some of Israel’s most fervent nationalists have recognized that Israel cannot remain a Jewish democracy without allowing for a Palestinian state. Israel will either have to enfranchise every Arab living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan Valley, thereby giving up its Jewish character, or deprive them of equal rights, thereby becoming an illiberal and undemocratic regime. Palestinians, too, will suffer from lacking a sovereign state of their own and living under the many indignities of permanent occupation.

But if Trump isn’t going to save the Jewish state from itself—as he almost certainly won’t—there is one thing that might. The Israelis are acutely aware of the machinations of American politics, even if Netanyahu has seemed to have forgotten them. One party might be in power today, but another can take over tomorrow. That’s why powerful pro-Israel lobbying groups, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, have historically centered their entire operation around cultivating bipartisan support for Israel in Washington. And that’s why Democratic leaders need to make abundantly clear now that if Israel goes through with this self-defeating and deleterious action, it will pay a price for it once the Democrats regain the White House.

Significantly, Joe Biden has come out against Netanyahu’s plan. “I do not support annexation,” he recently told an audience of American Jews. “It would choke off any hope for peace.” But then he made clear that American aid to Israel—$3.8 billion a year—would not be affected, nor has he suggested any other kind of punitive responses, like not shielding Israel from censure in international fora such as the UN.

Other Democrats have also made their opposition clear. Nineteen Democratic senators signed a letter warning against the move, but the letter’s language had to be changed during the drafting process to remove the implication that annexation could impact U.S. aid to Israel or the U.S.-Israel relationship because of pressure from more hawkish Democrats and pro-Israel advocates. Others Senate Democrats have spoken out, too, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

On Thursday, nearly 200 Democratic House members penned message to the Israeli leadership saying the move would be a mistake. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that “unilateral annexation undermines U.S. national security interests, our interests.” But in every instance, they have refused to make the essential point: that annexation would come with concrete and tangible consequences. In other words, they are afraid to use the leverage that they have.

Cutting aid to Israel may not be a wise move; Israel is a tiny state in a dangerous region, faced with many legitimate threats, and we have a moral obligation to ensure its security. At the same time, the U.S. benefits from the intelligence sharing and security cooperation supported by that assistance. But it sure is hard to change Israel’s calculus by warning it not to do something negative and irreversible, and then saying it wouldn’t fundamentally change the U.S.-Israel relationship if they go through with it anyway.

If Democrats want to stop annexation in its tracks, they have to start acting like they really mean it.

Not surprisingly, opposition around the world has been much stronger than in the United States. The European Union has threatened Israel with trade sanctions if it annexes parts of the West Bank. The Gulf States said that tentative steps toward rapprochement would end. King Abdullah of Jordan warned Israel of “massive conflict” if Israel goes through with annexation, including possibly cancelling the Israeli-Jordanian 1994 peace treaty. The PLO leadership has declared it will end security cooperation with the Israelis, which has been a key source of stability in the region for decades.

Past American Middle East negotiators have noted the dangers of Israel taking this step. “It is an effort to fundamentally and unalterably drive the final stake through the heart of a two-state solution,” wrote former State Department Middle East expert Aaron David Miller. For his part, veteran peace mediator Dennis Ross has been critical of the plan, but has noted that similar dire prognostications about a violent outbreak over Trump’s  decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was not realized.

But this is far different. Moving an embassy to Jerusalem was largely symbolic. Annexation is concrete. And there is good reason Biden should want to thwart it now. It could leave him with another colossal mess on his hands upon taking office in January.

“This move will have ramifications for other important regional policy objectives, including support for U.S. partners in Jordan and Iraq, and efforts to build a unified front challenging Iranian threats to regional security and stability,” former senior U.S. diplomat and Middle East Institute vice president Gerald M. Feierstein told me. “A Biden administration would face a difficult set of challenges determining the extent to which it could walk back Trump’s policies and re-engage Palestinians in a negotiating process without creating a major breach in U.S.-Israeli relations,” he added.

Biden recently said he would reverse Trump’s policies that undercut peace, but if Netanyahu begins annexing parts of the West Bank Wednesday, much of the damage could be irrevocable by the time he takes office.

That’s why Jerusalem is trying to get this done now. Israel’s ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer has reportedly pleaded with the Trump administration to allow for annexation now, before the window of opportunity closes in case Biden wins in November.

Senior administration officials are meeting this week to try to hash out what to do next. They reportedly are deeply divided, with ardently pro-Israel U.S. ambassador David M. Friedman pushing to support annexation (he donated lots of money to the settlements before becoming an envoy) and Kushner holding back. As of Thursday, they said they had made no final decision. But the bottom line for Washington is that Trump and his team allowed themselves to get snookered by the wily Netanyahu. Backed into a corner, they appear at a loss for what to do next.

Some analysts have speculated that Netanyahu could be pressured to pull back somewhat on his original promise while still being able to tell his base that he delivered something. For example, he could announce that Israel will annex a smaller portion of West Bank territory now—say, three percent—while holding out the option for additional seizures, salami-slicing-style, in the future.

Still, what is the limit? How far can an Israeli leader go in sabotaging peace once and for all without incurring serious damage to the nation’s relations with Washington? If Biden wants to spare himself a bigger headache when he’s president, he needs to lay down some markers now and take a much stronger stance. That may be difficult in an election year, as Netanyahu shrewdly knows, but it is necessary.

Otherwise, the message to Netanyahu will be clear. The Democrats may put out a bunch of statements condemning annexation, but the prime minister will just have to weather out the storm. At the end of the day, there are few restraints on him, and he will finally get what he’s always wanted when the long road toward two states comes to a sad and fruitless end.

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James Bruno

James Bruno is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.