On May 19, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), declared an end to all agreements, including security agreements, with Israel and the United States. On May 22, Palestinian security forces withdrew from the East Jerusalem area.
The reason for this decision was Israel’s claims to annex about 30 per cent of the territories in the West Bank, also known as Judea and Samaria. This was announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 10 during the presentation of his government to the Knesset. According to him, the time has come to apply Israeli law to these territories and “write another glorified chapter in the history of Zionism.”
It should be noted that the territories mentioned are the Palestinian territories in West Bank captured by Israel during the six-day war of 1967. The United Nations defines these territories as occupied. According to UN General Assembly Resolution No. 181, they are “the area of the proposed Arab State.”
Israel considers these territories disputed. In violation of the Geneva Conventions, banning to move the civilian population into the occupied territory, to date, Israel has created about 140 settlements in West Bank with approximately 500,000 people living there. From the point of view of international law, they are not part of Israel. Another 200,000 Israelis moved to the occupied East Jerusalem.
The vote on extending Israeli sovereignty to the occupied Palestinian territories may take place on July 1. In this effort, Israel is actively supported by the United States, as the annexation of territories in West Bank is part of the so-called “deal of the century” formally unveiled by Donald Trump on January 28, 2020. He is convinced that the establishment of Israeli sovereignty over territories in West Bank is fully consistent with his personal peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that annexing territories in West Bank is “ultimately Israel’s decision to make,” and the U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, the main supporter of Israeli settlements, is confident that Washington will recognize this move.
Netanyahu’s plan is not widely supported by the Israeli society. If the majority of Israeli Knesset members are ready to support it, a rather significant group of former senior military and special services officers are against it. For instance, 220 retired Israeli generals and admirals (including Gadi Shamni, a retired general in the Israel Defense Forces; Tamir Pardo, former Director of the Mossad; and Ami Ayalon, former director of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service) made a collective statement, warning that the annexation would threaten Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, anger allies in the Gulf and undermine the Palestinian authorities collaborating with Israel on important security issues. The generals were supported by 149 prominent American-Jewish leaders and 11 members of the U.S. Congress.
Judging by opinion polls, a significant part of Israeli society is of the same opinion. Many Israeli human rights organizations, including such respectable ones as B’Tselem and Yesh Din, have spoken out against the proposed annexation.
Egypt, a major regional player and mediator between Israel and Hamas, is coordinating with Israel in its fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda in Sinai. The annexation of the West Bank can spark negative reactions from the Egyptian population, which will force President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to reconsider relations with Israel.
The situation with Jordan is more complicated, with a significant number of Palestinians living there. They will get involved if Israel begins to implement its plans. This will lead to even greater radicalization and will inevitably provoke mass protests. The Kingdom of Jordan, facing difficult economic problems exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, will be confronted with enormous challenges. Amman is well aware of this.
For many years, the Jordan-Israel border was the safest border for Tel Aviv. The situation may change after July 1, as warned of by Jordan’s King Abdullah II. On May 15, in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Abdullah II warned that if Israel really does move to change the borders, it would set off a massive conflict with Jordan.
It is unlikely that this time the Gulf monarchies, collaborating with Israel against Iran in recent years, won’t get involved (for example, Saudi Arabia, exchanging intelligence with Israeli intelligence services). They have known about Netanyahu’s plans for West Bank for a long time, now the public in these countries will probably have a negative reaction to the annexation and require actions from the authorities.
The United Nations and the European Union cautioned against the West Bank annexation. Their representatives, in particular, Nickolay Mladenov, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, warned that this would be a devastating blow to the two-State solution for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, would slam the door on fresh negotiations and threaten efforts to advance regional and international peace.
According to Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union, Brussels does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied West Bank. However, this is his personal opinion and not the official position of the EU. The Union does not have a single position on what needs to be done now. Some EU member states, such as Hungary and Austria, believe that this is not the right time for such statements. Ireland, Norway, and Luxembourg, on the contrary, believe that it is necessary to make a statement and take measures against Israel if it does not abandon its plans.
France and Germany expressed their disagreement with Netanyahu’s intentions to extend Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements in West Bank. They called on the Israeli authorities to refrain from any unilateral measures that would lead to the annexation of all or part of the Palestinian territories. Given that Borrell’s statement is personal, and the demarches by Paris and Berlin are more like wasting breath, it is unlikely that the EU will move from words to some decisive action against Israel, like imposing sanctions. Moreover, the United States will not allow this.
Turkey, as expected, harshly criticized Netanyahu’s intentions. Ankara warned that the country would always stand by the brotherly Palestinian people.
The Church expressed its utmost concern. On May 7, the Patriarchs and Heads of the Holy Land Churches published a statement on Israeli unilateral annexation plans, “which would bring about the loss of any remaining hope for the success of the peace process.” Church leaders urged the Palestine Liberation Organization, which they called “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” to resolve all internal and factional conflicts so it could present a united front “dedicated to achieving peace and the building of a viable state that is founded upon pluralism and democratic values.” They also called on the UN, the United States, Russia, and the European Union to respond to annexation plans.
The League of Arab States is also making attempts to increase the efforts to oppose Netanyahu’s plans. The Arab League condemned Israel, saying that the implementation of plans to annex any part of the Palestinian territories would “represent a new war crime” against the Palestinians. In late April, in the Arab League Council online extraordinary meeting at the ministerial level, under the chairmanship of Egypt, a joint statement was made to support the Palestinians and Jordan, rejecting the Israeli unilateral moves.
An ambiguous position was taken by Canada. When the people of Crimea decided to join the Russian Federation following to the results of the referendum, official Ottawa was restless about the alleged Russian annexation and not only joined the economic and political sanctions of the West against Moscow and certain Russian politicians and entrepreneurs, but also sent its military instructors and started to provide material and technical support to the Ukrainian army. The country, thus, became directly involved in the civil war in Donbass. Now the Canadian government is abstaining from making public statements condemning Netanyahu’s intentions, let alone imposing practical sanctions.
There is little time left until the moment of truth on July 1. Much depends on how the international community and the Arab world behave. The complicit silence in the face of the situation, as was the case with Israel’s recent annexation of the Golan Heights, might bring about unexpected consequences for the entire Middle East. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki cautioned against the annexation, saying it would “end the two-state solution” and will “turn the battle from a political one to an endless religious war.”
Judging by the statement of Mahmoud Abbas, there is still hope. According to him, Palestinians are ready to return to the negotiating table with Israel, but with the mediation of a third party.
Some experts believe that under the prevailing conditions, the Middle East Quartet – the United Nations, the United States, Russia, and the European Union, could serve as a mediator. However, there are some factors that can obstruct such work.
The European Union is divided at this point. Its members should first decide what they want to achieve and develop an action strategy.
Prior to the U.S. presidential election, the current administration will not refuse the well-publicized “deal of the century.” It is part of the election campaign of Donald Trump, who is extremely interested in the lack of international consensus on measures to influence Israel. In addition, the American President probably takes into account the fact that the Arab world is now focused on internal problems and paralyzed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Russia emphasized its willingness, together with other participants of the Middle East Quartet, to encourage talks between Israel and Palestine and “to continue to facilitate the resumption of the peace process via direct dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians within a generally recognized international legal framework.” On May 22, by the initiative of the Palestinian side, Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa, had a telephone conversation with Hussein al-Sheikh, Fatah Central Committee member, who informed Mr Bogdanov about the latest decisions by the Palestinian leadership regarding relations with Israel. Russia reaffirmed its unwavering commitment to supporting the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including the establishment of an independent state within the 1967 lines with its capital in East Jerusalem, living peacefully and maintaining neighborly relations with Israel. The Special Presidential Representative of the Russian Federation pointed out that the proposal by Russia’s leadership to hold a face-to-face meeting between President of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow without any preconditions remained on the table.
At the same time, If Palestine is ready for negotiations, Benjamin Netanyahu might not be. In Israel, many of his political opponents believe that discussions around the annexation of part of the West Bank and COVID-19 are the only way for him to stay in politics and evade prosecution for corruption and breach of trust, at least for the next few months. And the Prime Minister is unlikely to refuse it.
From our partner RIAC