Israel’s annexation plan: the ‘existential threat’ to Palestinian dreams

At the café off of Route 90, the two-lane highway that serves as the spine of the Jordan Valley, nearly all the customers are armed.

The red-haired Israeli soldier flirting with two young women while off-duty has a machine gun slung casually over his shoulders. The two businessmen sitting with their laptops each have handguns peeking between out from between their polo shirts. Staff keep their own weapons within easy reach.

Momi Cohen, the 63-year-old owner of the café, and well-to-do farmer of grapes and dates in the occupied West Bank, shows off his new 9mm Brazilian-made handgun before making sure his visitor doesn’t mistake him for a zealot, as he sees them, “coming with a gun, and a flag, and putting it on a hill”.

“I am not a settler,” he says, with palpable disdain for his religious brethren who have populated the outskirts of Jerusalem under the biblical moniker of Judea and Samaria.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, guided by Israeli army Major General Nadav Padan at the Qasr al-Yahud baptism site at the Jordan Valley last year US National Security Adviser John Bolton (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, guided by Israeli army Major General Nadav Padan at the Qasr al-Yahud baptism site at the Jordan Valley last year © Abir Sultan/Pool/Reuters

“No. I am a coloniser,” he says, proudly embracing the epithet hurled at him and his ilk by generations of Palestinians, who have watched helplessly as Israeli Jews have changed the landscape — both ethnic, and otherwise — of the land they dreamt of calling Palestine.

With formidable patience, Mr Cohen and his family have spent 45 years tilling that same land in the harsh rift valley, not far from where Jesus was baptised, waiting for the day it will become permanently Israeli, completing the task, he says, of defending this territory from the Arabs.

Come July 1, his wait may finally be over. Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest serving Israeli leader who nows lead a unity government, has sent teams of mapmakers to fan out across the entirety of the West Bank, which Israel wrested from Jordanian control in the Six day war of 1967.

Within weeks, he has vowed, the Israeli parliament will be asked to vote on a new map for the State of Israel, one that could extend the Jewish state’s borders far beyond any expansion contemplated in endless — and eventually unsuccessful — rounds of peace talks with the Palestinians.

Those talks usually envisioned a Palestinian state along the borders that existed prior to 1967, with a shared capital in Jerusalem, and land swaps to compensate Palestinians for areas now taken over by illegal Israeli settlements that splinter the West Bank while taking over about 10 per cent of the land.

This current plan, based on a vaguely drawn map attached as an appendix to the peace plan presented by the Trump administration in January, would annex nearly a third of the occupied territories permanently to Israel — from the entire breadth of the fertile and verdant Jordan Valley, which runs roughly from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, to the red-roofed homes, factories and vineyards of some 650,000 Jewish residents in the settlement blocs near Jerusalem.

Map showing how Israel could grow

It isn’t clear exactly how much of that map Mr Netanyahu intends to immediately present for annexation — the final details remain Israel’s closely guarded secret. US officials have reportedly told Mr Netanyahu that they will greenlight his plan only if he garners a political consensus and does not upset the peace treaty with Jordan. Pressure from Arab and European governments could yet cause him to dilute the plans.

Yet for both Mr Netanyahu and the Palestinians, the annexation plan represents a pivotal moment. 

The Israeli leader sees an opportunity to permanently and fundamentally alter the map in way that would have caused international uproar only a few years ago, but which might be possible while he has a favourable administration in power in the US, at a time when regional support for the Palestinians has declined and while much of the world is distracted by the pandemic. 

A Palestinian farmer plants eggplant seedlings in Jordan Valley A Palestinian farmer plants eggplant seedlings in Jordan Valley © Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

For the Palestinians, it could be the end of a deeply-held promise of what their nation could one day look like — and the potential spark of a new wave of unrest. 

Palestinian leaders and western diplomats argue that unilateral annexation would be the final nail in the coffin of the 1993 Oslo Accords, signed when Mr Netanyahu was a neophyte opposition lawmaker in the Knesset, famously shouting at then prime minister Yitzak Rabin that the Bible was Israel’s “deed to the land.” (Within two years, Rabin would be dead, shot by a Jewish extremist, and soon after, Mr Netanyahu would begin the first of his five premierships.)

Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh says annexation would effectively end the promise implicit at the heart of Oslo, that the shared borders of Israel and a future state of Palestine would be the subject of careful negotiations — the give and take of diplomatic manoeuvring.

“This annexation is an existential threat — a serious violation of the agreements we have signed with Israel and a part of the systematic destruction, of a future Palestinian state,” says Mr Shtayyeh, a UK-trained economist, in an interview in Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority.

“I am angry. I have invested most of my life in this process, and all I have wanted is for our people to have a moment of happiness, not to live under an occupation forever.”

Israeli-Palestinian territory maps 1947 to present

‘Land for nothing’

Emboldened by the Trump plan, Mr Netanyahu sees an opportunity to discard decades of a policy nicknamed land-for-peace, where past Israeli leaders gave up land won in war in exchange for peace with its neighbours.

In theory, Mr Trump’s peace plan, which has been written by his son-in-law and Middle East peace envoy Jared Kushner — a close friend of Mr Netanyahu’s — in partnership with David Friedman, a pro-settlement American bankruptcy lawyer now serving as US Ambassador to Israel, evokes the sentiment of land for peace.

On paper, it raises the possibility of a Palestinian state, albeit shrivelled to a constellation of disconnected enclaves after Israeli land annexations. Major Arab cities like Ramallah and Bethlehem would be connected to each other only by highways and tunnels. With the Jordan Valley absorbed into Israel, this theoretical Palestine would have only the tiniest strip of land — perhaps just a highway — connecting it to Jordan.

Donald Trump’s peace plan has been written by his son-in-law and Middle East peace envoy Jared Kushner (L) Donald Trump’s peace plan has been written by his son-in-law and Middle East peace envoy Jared Kushner (L) © Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

“What would be left of the West Bank would be a Palestinian Bantustan, islands of disconnected land completely surrounded by Israel and with no territorial connection to the outside world,” a group of UN human rights experts warned on Tuesday.

Until recently, Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, and the Syrian Golan Heights in 1981, had been ignored by the international community. But last year, Mr Trump recognised the Golan Heights as part of Israel, adding some 1,200 sq km of strategic land to Israel.

The Palestinians have already rejected the plan, and refused to show up for any negotiations based on this map, which also gives East Jerusalem to Israel. Undeterred, Mr Netanyahu has taken this as a green light to move forward with the annexation. He has described the US plan as “a historic opportunity”.

The US has not made its intentions clear — Israeli annexation would have much less impact without American recognition. But if Mr Netanyahu can pull it off, his plan would, as he told a group of his aides last week, be “land for nothing”, according to three people present at the meetings.

“Don’t worry,” he told a group of religious settlers who hope to seed the entirety of the West Bank with Jewish homes and who are appalled at the idea that the new plan could kick-start a process that ends with a Palestinian state. “As long as I am here, there won’t be a Palestine.”

Mr Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the annexation plans.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, has tied his legacy to the success of peace negotiations Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, has tied his legacy to the success of peace negotiations © Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty

‘We wait for everybody to leave’

The dusty agricultural town of Bardala in the northern Jordan Valley, population 2,500, offers a glimpse into the granularity of the occupation of the West Bank, where every inch of land is contested.

The mayor, Zayed Sawafta, a burly man with the swollen hands of a farmer, measures the ebb and flow of history not by time, but the flow of water. Before 1967, when the Jordanians controlled the West Bank and one of his uncles ran Bardala, they dug a well for the water that sustained their crop of watermelons and cucumbers.

When Israel pushed out the Jordanians, Jewish soldiers came and dug a deeper well nearby — the village’s well ran dry, forcing them to buy water from an Israeli distributor, says Mr Sawafta. Around the same time, religious Israelis started a settlement on the hills nearby — Mehola today has lush lawns and its residents grow bananas, a thirsty crop, while Bardala’s taps often run dry.

As talk of annexation has spread, the village woke up to find Israeli soldiers had removed the road sign that designated Bardala as a Palestinian territory that Israeli civilians are barred from. Perhaps, the villagers surmised, Bardala will be annexed into Israel, making them unwilling residents of a state they despise? “We are a patient people,” says Mr Sawafta. “The Turks came and went, the British came and went, the Jordanians came and went, and now we wait for the Israelis to leave.”

The final status of several thousand Palestinians in the Jordan Valley remains unclear — with Mr Netanyahu loathe to share his maps, it’s unclear if they will find themselves in restricted enclaves, or, as happened with East Jerusalem’s Arabs after the 1967 war, as non-voting residents of Israel who are often forced to prove their ties to the contested city or lose their coveted residency.

Palestinian school students do morning exercise in Jordan Valley Palestinian school students do morning exercise in Jordan Valley © Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

An hour’s drive away, up a lush hill, is the small homestead of a Bedouin family that traces their journey to this isolated hill back to the 1930s, long before the state of Israel took shape. Kadija Bsharat, a 32-year-old college graduate and mother of three, brings out her artwork as the entire family assembles under open-air metal-topped sheds for tea.

One painting shows her children walking to school, while another shows a bulldozer destroying a trailer gifted to the family by a European aid agency. For Ms Bsharat, those two experiences bookend the anxieties of her difficult life in the Israeli-controlled Jordan Valley.

Now, she worries about what comes next, and if the family will end up being expelled. “It’s a war of nerves, this waiting game — a test of our patience,” she says. “You’re always thinking, always worrying, always obsessing.”

Rival search for support

For the ageing leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Mr Netanyahu’s plans, described by a senior European diplomat who requested anonymity as a “shameless land grab”, represent a mortal threat.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, has tied his legacy to the success of peace negotiations, coming tantalisingly close with Mr Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, in 2008.

For the following decade, he has watched Mr Netanyahu chip away at the project of his life, his own popularity ebbing as Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, took over the Gaza Strip.

“If we accept annexation, we are a bunch of traitors,” says Mr Shtayyeh.

Kadija Bsharat, pictured with her daughters, worries what might come next Kadija Bsharat, pictured with her daughters, worries what might come next © Tom Dallal

The mood among Palestinians is potentially volatile in ways that could pose problems for both the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships.

Mr Netanyahu’s plan has pushed support for talks based on the Oslo Accords to the lowest on record, according to a poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research — seven in ten believe they ought to be scrapped, and some 65 per cent prefer a return to armed struggle.

But annexation has also revived interest in the idea of a one state solution, where Israelis and Palestinians have equal democratic rights, a concept that Israel’s rightwing considers the biggest threat to Zionism.

With few cards to play, Mr Shtayyeh has begged Europeans to intervene and to threaten sanctions to deter Israel. Until then, he counselled patience. “Israel is pushing us into a finger-biting exercise,” he says. “The first to say ouch loses.”

Mr Netanyahu is counting that he can hold his breath longer, that allies like Hungary and Austria will temper the EU’s response, and that US evangelical Christians, an important part of the Trump base, will deliver immediate US recognition of the annexation.

“If the US stands with us, then I doubt there will be sanctions from the EU,” says Ayelet Shaked, a leader in the hardline settler party Yamina and an ally of Mr Netanyahu. “And if there are, it won’t be the end of the world.”

Arab allies could still help water down the annexation plans, say four Israeli diplomats. Jordan’s King Abdullah has indicated that the Hashemite kingdom may abrogate parts of its peace treaty with Israel if Mr Netanyahu moves forward, a warning that has caught Washington’s ears. The UAE warned this week that its warming ties with Israel would freeze if Mr Netanyahu proceeded.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz has sent signals that Israeli attempts to appease his anger at the annexation by arranging for a Saudi presence on the Wakf (Islamic Trust) that controls the holy Muslim site on Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, are inadequate. “Netanyahu was surprised to hear how angry he was,” says one foreign ministry official. “He had been told by Kushner that the Saudis were under control.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh chairs a cabinet meeting in the Jordan Valley last September Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh chairs a cabinet meeting in the Jordan Valley last September © Majdi Mohammed/AP

The one tangible outcome of Oslo was the creation of the Palestinian Authority, which slowly assumed the responsibilities of administering the day-to-day of Palestinian lives, taking over the irksome burdens of military occupation from the Israelis — schools, police, roads and rubbish collection.

It also divvied up the West Bank into three interlocking zones — Area A, where the PA has full security and civilian control, including Ramallah, Nablus, Jericho and other major cities; Area B, where the PA runs the schools and other civilian affairs, while Israeli soldiers manage security; and Area C, which makes up nearly 60 per cent of the West Bank and is run entirely by the Israeli military — and which is at the centre of Mr Netanyahu’s annexation plans.

Under the Oslo Accords, Israel was to slowly surrender its control of Area C to the Palestinians, while the Palestinians were to make progress in other areas of state-building, says Yossi Beilin, the Israeli diplomat who met PLO officials secretly in Norway to hammer out the details.

“This area was designated for the Palestinians — there was never an idea that this was meant for Israel,” he says. “It was always understood that the 2.5m Palestinians who now live in the West Bank need this land [the area Mr Netanyahu intends to annex] for their industry and for their residence.”

The rightwing settlers, who make up less than 5 per cent of Israel’s population but have an outsized influence in its parliament, have insisted that Israel annex all of Area C — nearly twice the most ambitious plans being considered by Mr Netanyahu — in a policy once described by Ms Shaked, the lawmaker, as “maximum land, minimum Palestinians.”

These settlers, who organise themselves in an umbrella group called the Yesha Council, have emerged, surprisingly, as the biggest opponents to Mr Netanyahu’s plans at a time when the leftwing opposition is weak. “The debate in Israel is what to annex, not whether to annex or not,” says Mr Shtayyeh.

In his office in the Jordan Valley, David Elhayani, the hardline politician who runs the Yesha Council, looks out over vast fields of dates and shows a map he could get behind — one which has an even smaller region under Palestinian civilian control. Israel, he says, could avoid the label of an apartheid state by arranging for Arabs to vote elsewhere, perhaps in the Jordanian capital. The idea that galls him most is that the current annexation plan would draw out the final contours of how far he could expand — that where the settlements end, Palestine would begin.

“Take the Trump plan and put it in the garbage — if it means a Palestinian state, throw it away,” he says.