Annexations in the West Bank: Europeans need to punch their weight

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A Palestinian man sprays an Arabic inscription reading 'the right of return is sacred' as Palestinians mark the 72nd anniversary of Nakba in Fawwar refugee camp south of the West Bank city of Hebron, 15 May 2020. [EPA-EFE/ABED AL HASHLAMOUN]

Last week, EU foreign ministers emphasised that the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains one of the Union’s strategic interests and that they discourage possible steps towards annexations. In this vein, the EU and its member states should send a clear signal, Muriel Asseburg and Peter Lintl argue.

Dr Muriel Asseburg is Senior Fellow in the Research Division Middle East and Africa at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). Dr Peter Lintl is an Associate and head of the project “Israel and its regional and global conflicts”. This text was first published on the SWP website as a Point of View” piece.

In the coming weeks, crucial decisions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are likely to be made. After three rounds of elections and difficult tactical manoeuvres, a coalition government under Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in last week. The coalition agreement between the main partners – Likud, and Blue and White – stipulates that, as of 1 July, a bill on the “application of Israeli sovereignty” to parts of the West Bank can be put to the vote, provided the US government gives its approval. The agreement attests to the fundamental change that has taken place in Israel within the last few years. Former Knesset spokesman Yuli Edelstein (Likud) stressed that when he called for annexations in 2015, people thought he was crazy. Today, this would no longer be the case.

It looks as if the US administration will support the move. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently stated that the decision lies solely with Israel. Already in January of this year, US President Donald Trump revealed his “deal of the century”, which allows Israel to annex about 30% of the West Bank. Subsequently, an Israeli-American committee was established to work out the territorial details of annexation. Representatives of the US government emphasise that Israel has to also negotiate with the Palestinians on the implementation of the “Trump Plan”. But this does not necessarily mean that annexations would be postponed during the negotiation phase.

As Trump’s victory in the November election is anything but certain, and presidential candidate Joe Biden has already signalled his opposition to annexations, there is great pressure on the Israeli side to proceed with implementation before the US elections later this year.

If the Knesset were to decide to annex the Jordan Valley and all settlements in the West Bank, this would render impossible a viable Palestinian state as well as a negotiated settlement of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Already, the civil and political rights of the Palestinians are severely restricted by the reality of occupation, and the territory available to the Palestinians is highly fragmented. An annexation would further restrict Palestinian access to the West Bank’s resources. It would also make it easier for Israel – as sovereign of the annexed territory – to expropriate Palestinian privately owned land; the 2017 Regularization Law already prepared the ground for this.

As Israeli security experts and former military officers stress, such an annexation would not serve Israel’s security. On the contrary, it would create a long and difficult-to-control border with the Palestinian enclaves. It would also undermine joint conflict management with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt. Last but not least, it would increase the risk of violent confrontations, a collapse of the PA, and destabilisation of the Jordanian monarchy.

What is more, annexations and the reactions to it are likely to set a precedent that will be viewed with great attention internationally.

The EU and its member states should therefore decide – in coordination with the United Kingdom – to use their weight to influence the cost-benefit calculations of political actors in Israel, and thus prevent the announced annexation.

Europe does have instruments at its disposal to defend one of the fundamental principles of international law – the inadmissibility of acquisition of territory by force. To give but one example, the Europeans have imposed drastic sanctions on Russia in response to the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. For some European states, such as Germany, sanctions against Israel are out of the question. Instead, they could, for example, suspend the EU-Israel Association Agreement until tangible progress towards a negotiated settlement is achieved. The normative basis of the Association Agreement, enshrined in Article 2 of the agreement, would be fundamentally violated by annexations – as would the spirit in which it was signed, i.e. the expectation that the Oslo peace process would lead to a negotiated two-state conflict settlement.

Yet, the Europeans should emphasise not only their rejection of unilateral border changes, but also their expectations of Israel in the event of annexations. These include the demand that Israel grant civil and political rights to all inhabitants of not only annexed territories, but also the isolated Palestinian enclaves that it will continue to control as a consequence of annexations, and that it assume responsibility for their well-being.

At the same time, Europeans should clearly spell out what their expectations of the PA are: overcoming internal divisions, a democratic renewal of Palestinian institutions, and a constructive engagement in conflict resolution. European support must not be lent without conditions for the PA either. Yet, the EU and its member states must reconsider where they themselves stand on the issue of implementing these demands.

The more united Europe acts and the better these signals are explained, the better they will be understood. But even if it is only larger member states that coalesce around them, they will have an impact. A veto by one or two member states should thus not prevent others from taking a strong stance. Indeed, this will be seen by many pundits as a litmus test of EU foreign policy to go beyond declarations.

Europeans should also build on the pioneering role they played in the past, for example with their 1980 Venice Declaration. For it is not only a matter of preventing annexations, but also of promoting a settlement of the conflict. This settlement must take into account the right of self-determination of both peoples, guarantee individual human rights as well as the security of all, and regulate the refugee question in such a way that both the individual choices of Palestinian refugees and the interests of current and potential host states, including Israel, are recognised. In this sense, Europeans should work towards an appropriate multilateral framework for negotiations in a period after Trump’s presidency. In doing so, they should avoid anything that might give legitimacy to the “deal of the century”.

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