My friend, former boss, and erstwhile coauthor Steven Cook – the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations – wrote a piece for Salon on Sunday that takes a different view of the prospects for Israeli annexation of the West Bank than the one I argued for last week. Since arguing is a mutual forte of ours, we decided to argue about it. Here is our exchange:
MICHAEL KOPLOW: Hi Steven,
We both understandably have annexation on our minds after last week’s various votes and pronouncements in Israel. I agree with you in one big way, and disagree with you in another big way.
I agree with you that the Israeli rightwing broadly and Likud more specifically have no interest in a two-state solution, and that many Likud members do indeed want Israel to annex all or part of the West Bank. They have always been ideologically opposed to a Palestinian state and now employ a bevy of security-based arguments for why there can never be one. Rather than dance around the issue, they want to seize the opportunity that they think a Trump presidency presents to them and kill the idea of an independent Palestine for good. They broadcast their annexation dreams loudly and proudly.
But whether or not Israeli politicians want to annex the West Bank is a separate question from whether they actually will annex the West Bank, and that is where I think you are off the mark. Whereas you view the Likud Central Committee’s annexation resolution as more than just political theater, I think political theater is precisely what it is. Leaving aside the fact that, as you note, the resolution is non-binding and Netanyahu himself made sure not to be associated with it, there are a few non-trivial obstacles for annexationists to contend with.
First is that annexation is not a position supported by a majority of Israelis, and certainly nowhere even approaching the consensus that would be required to carry it out. According to the Israel Democracy Institute, 44 percent of Israelis support annexing the West Bank while 45 percent are opposed. Furthermore, despite the fact that a majority of the members of the coalition oppose a two-state solution, a majority of the members of the Knesset are in favor of one. Annexing the West Bank isn’t the political equivalent of an unpopular tax cut that can be pushed through; it would be the most significant decision of an Israeli government since the state declared its independence. It will not be done without a clear majority in favor of doing it, and that does not exist.
Second, annexing the West Bank and actually declaring a border would create a new set of security challenges different from the ones that Israel now faces, and if there is one thing that unites Israel’s security establishment, it is that annexing Area C would be disastrous. That does not mean that Israeli security officials are unanimous in their views about a two-state solution, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone aside from a view lone voices in the wilderness who think that annexation is a good idea from a security perspective. In a country where the IDF and the security establishment act as an effective check on the political leaders in matters of war and peace, with the most recent example being the opposition of the IDF, intelligence brass, and half of the security cabinet overcoming Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak’s preferences to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, this means that Likud preferences on annexation cannot be acted upon on the whim of a prime minister and his allies.
Finally and most importantly, I think there is a gaping hole in your argument. You write, “The fact is — and has always been — that both sides reject the two-state solution.” We can argue to what extent this is true or not – and given that two of the last four prime ministers have been deadly serious about a two-state solution, not to mention majorities of both publics support it, I think you are on shaky ground in asserting this as a universal truth – but your argument contains an assumption that only two options exist: a two-state solution or annexation. But there is a third option, and it is the one that has reigned for half a century and is likely to continue to reign for the foreseeable future, which is a stalemate. Nobody has been more committed to this option than Netanyahu, and while it makes your observation that he is no two-stater correct, it also doesn’t make him an annexationist. It is why the annexationist bloc does not and has not ever trusted him, and it is why there is always more smoke than fire surrounding his policies on settlements. It is why despite Netanyahu having been in power uninterrupted since 2009 and now presiding over the most rightwing coalition in Israeli history – a coalition in which a majority of its members are on record as opposed to two states – the most significant steps toward annexation have been to talk about it rather than to do something about it, including in areas that are well within the Israeli national consensus such as Ma’ale Adumim. I am not arguing that a two-state solution is imminent. But that does not mean that annexation is an inevitability.
STEVEN COOK: Dear Michael,
I knew this day would come. I cannot think of much of consequence about which we disagree except for the Yankees and the Red Sox…until now.
You make some interesting, if not entirely compelling points in response to my piece, “Israel Moves to Annex the West Bank—this is how the two state solution dies.” You argue that Likud has long wanted to annex the West Bank, but that desire is different from actually putting that long-held objective into practice. Yet that is exactly what has been happening.
The news hook for my article was the Likud Central Committee’s vote to extend Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements (not just settlers), which as we both acknowledge was non-binding, but you casually overlook the fact that the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General have instructed Israeli ministries to justify why new legislation should not apply to the settlements. Isn’t this essentially putting the Central Committee’s vote into practice?
In addition, you assume that one day the Israelis will announce “We are annexing the West Bank,” but they have actually pursued a different strategy, which is probably best called creeping annexation. The towns, cities, hilltop outposts, roads, tunnels, and infrastructure for water, electricity, and telecommunications is a clear indication that the Israelis plan to be in the West Bank, which even non-right wing Israel politicians call Judea and Samaria, forever. I’ve read all the plans for this territorial adjustment and that territorial adjustment and how some huge number of settlements will be behind the separation barrier in a final agreement. That all sounds nice, but there are two problems with this: 1) the separation barrier cuts through West Bank territory in a way that makes 2) a final agreement impossible.
But what about the polls? You cite the polling that indicates that majorities of Israelis and Palestinians want a two-state solution. Two questions: First, what does the “two-state solution” mean to these folks? It means the other side submitting to the demands of the other. Neither side is willing to share Jerusalem, neither side recognizes each other’s right of return, and neither side recognizes the legitimacy of the other’s claims. Second, if there is such an overwhelming desire for peace and two states, how come there has been no progress toward this laudable, but now inconceivable goal? What happened to the Israeli politicians that allegedly took the two state solution seriously? There has not been an electoral outcome to produce coalitions for two states on either side. Why not?
Finally, you are correct. I believe that there are two possible outcomes: two states or annexation. Stalemate is annexation because it provides an opportunity for the Israelis to continue their efforts to establish “Judea and Samaria” as integral parts of Israel. They will likely succeed.
Looking forward to spring training. Have you seen the Yankees lineup?
MICHAEL KOPLOW: Dear Steven,
Compared to our longstanding Red Sox – Yankees feud, a disagreement over Israel is nothing. But since you have brought up a true subject of mutual enmity, let me roll with the baseball theme for a moment.
Whether or not Israel’s creeping annexation amounts to an actual annexation is much like the debate over a certain former Yankee captain’s fielding ability. Despite the fact that every objective fielding metric reaches the conclusion that Derek Jeter was abysmal at playing his position, Yankee fans stubbornly insist that he was one of the best fielding shortstops in baseball rather than one of the worst. Part of Yankee supporters’ imperviousness to facts about their eminently flawed demigod can be attributed to a stubborn allegiance to belief over reality, but part of it can be attributed to a kernel of truth. While watching Jeter try to make basic plays in the field was like watching a grade schooler try to explain particle physics (how many times have we all heard an announcer use the phrase “and the ball goes past a diving Jeter”), he did have a knack for making one certain type of difficult play look easy with his patented jump-twist-and-throw. Thus the myth of Jeter’s fielding prowess was born, contradicting what our eyes told us 99 percent of the time.
Israel in indeed doing much of what you say, deepening its presence in the West Bank and making it look like it will never leave. But this very flashy activity belies the fact that the pace of building under Netanyahu has been slower than under his predecessors, that Israel has dismantled nearly all of the checkpoints that were put up in the midst of the second intifada, that Israel has lessened its security footprint and turned over much of the routine security in Area B to the PA, and that 80 percent of Israelis living over the Green Line are on only 4 percent of the land. It also ignores that, contrary to your contention, the security barrier actually does not cut through the West Bank in a way that makes a final agreement impossible, and that the places where the planned route does pose a real problem are also the places where the barrier has not been built. It is easy to overlook the overwhelming volume of quiet but inconvenient facts in favor of the small number of flashier ones, but much like it leads to the erroneous assumption that Derek Jeter was even a barely adequate shortstop, it paints a picture of an Israel that has already de facto annexed the West Bank when it has done no such thing. I’d also be remiss if I did not point out that as the Yankees buy their way out of problems – for instance, relying on their fielding-challenged legend to buy another team and then trade them that team’s best player for the equivalent of a bucket of balls – much of the problem of Israel’s presence in the West Bank will be solved by buying its way out and paying the settlers who are in isolated outposts to leave.
As to the question of Israeli politicians who take two states seriously and why they aren’t running things, it boils down to security. Israelis are wary – and understandably so – that their security can be guaranteed if a Palestinian state is established in the West Bank. But that is a very different question than annexation, and I can’t help but notice that you are now moving the goalposts. The disagreement here is not whether a two-state solution is around the corner, but whether annexation is. I concede that Shaked and Mandelblit’s move toward applying Knesset legislation to the West Bank is indeed worrisome, although whether it actually comes to fruition is very much in doubt. But in terms of what Israel has or has not done so far, annexation is not imminent.
And yes, I have seen the Yankees lineup, and if I possessed the power to replace Kushner, Greenblatt, and Friedman with Judge, Stanton, and Sanchez, I would do it in a heartbeat and sacrifice any credible Israeli-Palestinian policy for giving the Red Sox a fighting chance at winning the division this year.
STEVEN COOK: Michael,
Best that I can tell from your response is that you hate Derek Jeter, underscoring once again that Red Sox fans are less fans than irrational haters of all things related to the New York Yankees (bless them). I could not even name a recent Red Sox shortstop because I am focused on what my team is doing, which for the better part of the last century is winning. By the way, Big Papi was a great ballplayer and seems like a very nice guy.
Now back to Israel’s annexation of the West Bank. I have heard all the percentages about the number of settlers east of the Separation Barrier and that it really doesn’t cut through the West Bank, but this is all smoke and mirrors. First, I remember a number of years ago when some folks in Washington were peddling an idea that would keep 90 percent of settlers to the west of the Wall with some adjustments to its path. Sounds great; who could be opposed? Well, lots of people, and for good reason. Second, 90 percent is a lot, but that would leave 10 percent, or 57,500 settlers, in the West Bank. What happens to them? Will the Israelis demand extraterritorial sovereignty? Will the settlers be Palestinian citizens who carry Palestinian passports? Somehow I don’t think that these are acceptable options for anyone. Why? Because Palestinians want a sovereign state, Israelis don’t want to be citizens of Palestine, and Palestinians don’t want Israelis who don’t accept their claims to the land in their midst. In other words, they don’t accept a two-state solution.
Also, let’s take a look at the path of the Separation Barrier. Let me stipulate that I am in favor of a wall or anything the Israelis want to build along the Green Line. That would institutionalize a boundary between Israel and Palestine—something Israeli governments have been unwilling to do because they have actually been pursuing annexation while paying lip service to a long-dead peace process. The wall cuts through and around Palestinian territory in ways that ensure Israeli control over Arab population centers in the West Bank. It becomes a thicket of loops and curves around Jerusalem and Gush Etzion, which is hardly surprising given the sensitivity of these areas, and then juts east over a fairly significant amount of West Bank territory near the settlements of Ariel and Kedumim in the north. Israelis and their supporters tend to look at the route of the wall and say, “Looks good to us, the Palestinians can have all of this other territory.” Yet therein lies the problem: the Palestinians do not see it that way and will never see it that way because it would be negotiating away the 21 percent of territory left from what they consider to be rightfully their land. That’s been called missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity by critics of the Palestinian leadership, but they have politics and principles too.
I admire your efforts, Michael. You’ve offered some interesting critiques, but they don’t work because annexation is underway and will not likely be reversed. Too much time has passed, too many Israelis call the West Bank home, and too much permanent infrastructure exists. We have all been watching this happen while pretending that both sides can make peace even as they have rejected it.