Referring to reports of Israeli intentions to annex parts of the West Bank on which Israeli settlements have been built, US Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner indicated that the US had not yet discussed this subject with Israel but that it would do so after Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu forms a government.
What this means, firstly, is that the US is open to and prepared to accept such a step, and secondly, that Israel is planning on an almost certain Palestinian rejection of the “Deal of the Century” that Washington is expected to unveil after Netanyahu forms a government, and that the plan involves the unilateral annexation of around 60 per cent of the West Bank.
Thirdly, it means that Kushner, himself, is now certain that the Palestinians cannot regard the “Deal of the Century” as a solution to their cause regardless of the enticements on offer and that the major Arab powers will not pressure the Palestinians into discussing it.
The unifying thread here is to be found in a line of Israeli strategic thinking that dates back about 15 years.
It holds that, in the event of the lack of a Palestinian peace partner and given Israel’s unwillingness to govern Palestinian population concentrations in the West Bank and Gaza, the only way to end the conflict with the Palestinians is for Israel to designate its borders unilaterally and let the Palestinians and Arabs decide what to do about the areas that Israel left out, though Israel would reserve the right to pursue the security measures it deems appropriate (in accordance with Israeli law) to defend its security and its self-designated borders.
The thinking was embodied in the Convergence Plan announced by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (2006-2009) and it looks like this plan will form the basis of Israel’s actions should the “Deal of the Century” fall through.
Describing the Convergence Plan during the Israeli-Hamas war in December 2008, Olmert said that the purpose of the plan was to separate Israel and the Palestinians so as to give the Palestinians an independent state, although “if the Qassam rockets continue, we will be forced to take unilateral measures”.
He added: “This is the only solution for the Palestinians. It is also the only way we can ensure safe borders.”
How Netanyahu would implement the plan practically is another matter. What would be his map for consolidating Israel’s West Bank settlements to prepare them for annexation?
One scenario ventures that it would only include the settlements around Greater Jerusalem which account for about 10 per cent of the area of the West Bank.
Other scenarios predict that the map would also incorporate more remote settlements and, together with the security belts, ultimately comprise more than half of the West Bank.
What is certain is that Netanyahu will exploit the Palestinians’ rejection of the “Deal of the Century” to stage a second annexation scenario and that he will do it in a manner to cater to the extremist right-wing parties that will join him in a coalition government.
Netanyahu will simultaneously be acting on the conviction that Palestinian rejection of the Trump administration’s plan to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will guarantee Washington’s support for any Israeli step to permanently annex large chunks of the West Bank.
But there remain certain matters that cannot be overlooked, such as the fate of the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the PLO in 1993. In officially annexing portions of the West Bank, Israel will have unilaterally withdrawn from that agreement and caused its collapse.
The Palestinians will rightfully be able to claim that Israel reneged on its obligations under the accords, which prohibits any alteration to the legal status of the areas under dispute with the Palestinians until the two sides reach an agreement over the borders between Israel and the Palestinian state that was to be proclaimed following the interim period (which the agreement had set to end in 1999).
This legal problem might lead Trump to withdraw Washington’s recognition of the Oslo Accords, using the Palestinian rejection of his deal as a pretext.
After all, Washington will be unable to reconcile its ongoing recognition of the principles of the Oslo Accords with its potential recognition of the borders Israel designates for itself unilaterally. Moreover, Israel and even the Palestinian Authority will find themselves facing the same dilemma.
The Oslo Accords legitimises the Palestinian Authority as the official representative of the Palestinian people. Should that agreement collapse, that capacity will revert to the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation).
Will the US and Israel then retract their recognition of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people? To do so would trigger an unprecedentedly fierce rivalry between the Palestinian Islamist movements (Hamas and the Islamic Jihad) to establish their “militant legitimacy” which would generate huge security challenges for Israel, especially if Hamas manages to gain control over the portions of the West Bank that Israel left outside its borders.
Could Israel and the US withstand such a nightmarish scenario? Worse yet, could Washington withstand the repercussions of this scenario on the security of the entire Middle East?
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Kushner and the West Bank