IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Israel annexing the West Bank isn't the disaster for peace everyone says it is

The move is a mostly symbolic acknowledgment of the current reality rather than a change. That could help both sides be more realistic in negotiations.
An Israeli settlement in the Gush Etzion bloc of the West Bank on Saturday.Hazem Bader / AFP - Getty Images

The Trump administration is the first U.S. administration to state the obvious when it comes to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict: Most Israeli settlements are here to stay, so we might as well accept them. Doing so doesn't make a peace deal with the Palestinians less likely. In fact, any attempt to promote a resolution must begin by acknowledging this reality and proceed from there.

Denying realities — such as the reality of the Palestinian people, as the Israeli right often does, or the reality of a thriving Jewish state, as the Palestinians frequently do— is a disease that has gotten us, thus far, no closer to healing the rifts between the sides. Only grappling with these realities and finding ways to accommodate them can actually lead to peace.

The Trump parameters make it clear that a full Israeli retreat to the 1967 lines is not going to happen, rooting any future negotiations in the reality necessary for success.

It's important to keep this in mind when trying to make sense of the brouhaha surrounding Israel's possible annexation of parts of the West Bank, which Israel calls Judea and Samaria, and the criticism Palestinians and their allies have leveled at Israel over any extension of its sovereignty. That annexation could start as early as Wednesday, though the Israeli government wants clearer approval from the White House before it acts, so it is likely to be a dragged-out process.

A short history recap is essential to understand the situation. In 1948, the U.N. wanted two states to be established in Mandatory Palestine, an area controlled by the British following World War I after several hundred years of Ottoman rule: one for Jews and one for Arabs. The Jews established their state — Israel. The Arabs decided to fight a war and lost. Part of the territory, Judea and Samaria, was captured and kept by Jordan.

In 1967, in another war instigated by the surrounding Arab countries, Israel took this territory, as well. Its Jewish citizens then gradually began to settle the area, mostly populated by Palestinians, who claim the territory as their own. The Israeli government believes that it has the moral and legal right to settle the area, as it is both the heart of the historic national homeland of the Jewish people and essential to the security of modern Israel. Most of the international community disagrees and believes the territory to be one that the occupying power is not allowed to settle, nor to annex.

The two sides never came to a real agreement as to what to do with the territory after the 1967 war, and in the meantime, time has flown. Israel's so-called occupation is more than 50 years old. The settlers are raising grandchildren and even great-grandchildren in Judea and Samaria. Around half a million Jews live among the 2 million-plus Palestinians in the West Bank.

Whatever one's views of the legitimacy or desirability of these Israeli settlements, they are facts that everyone has to acknowledge as one ponders the future of the two peoples, the conflict and the land.

President George W. Bush was the first American leader to acknowledge these facts, in essence suggesting that all peace proposals must take into account that removing all of the settlements would be a huge challenge — and hence an obstacle to achieving a deal. That was a decade and a half ago. President Donald Trump went further in his peace proposal in January, indicating that no resident, Jew or Arab, would have to be evacuated from the West Bank as the parties move forward on their quest for peace.

Most of the rest of the world is not yet there. That is to say: Most of the rest of the world — Palestinians in particular — still argue that a future peace can materialize only if the Palestinians get almost all of the area Israel occupied after the 1967 war and the settlers return to Israel proper. The common perception is that this scenario is still feasible because the Palestinians alone have the legitimacy to decide whether to accept even one settlement — thereby interminably prolonging negotiations by maintaining a fiction that will never materialize.

The Trump parameters make it clear that a full Israeli retreat to the 1967 lines is not going to happen, rooting any future negotiations in the reality necessary for success. And the logical implication of the Trump parameter acknowledging that Jews as well as Palestinians who live in the West Bank can remain is that Israeli sovereignty should be extended to the Jewish population there. Israel is awaiting an explicit green light from the U.S. before that can happen, however, given how hostile much of the rest of the world is to the idea.

Yet despite these international and Palestinian objections, which are understandable, this annexation — if and when it proceeds — will neither sabotage nor preclude a deal for peace. That is, unless the Palestinians decide to use it as an excuse to end all negotiations.

This is an important point. It is the main point that the opponents of annexation make. They argue that it is an irreversible move that makes negotiations impossible. They are half right: Annexation is going to anger the Palestinians and make them feel outmaneuvered and ignored. They will be in a weaker position and even more skeptical about Israel's willingness to make compromises and to sanction sovereignty of any sort for Palestinians.

Then again, they are only half right: Such a result is not an inherent component of annexation. It is an emotional response to annexation, a Palestinian choice rather than a necessity.

The Palestinians could choose a different path. They could choose to come to the table, accept the Trump plan and enter negotiations — clearly a viable option given the murmurings that perhaps they are finally willing to restart talks after years of silence. Or they could choose to ignore annexation and leave the door open for future negotiations.

It's possible for them to ignore annexation for two main reasons. First, annexation is merely going to take an existing reality and make it official. For example: Close to 100,000 Israelis live in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc right outside Jerusalem. No Israeli government, left-wing or right-wing, is ever going to agree to make them leave. No serious mediator for peace is going to propose that these people must leave. The bloc is going to remain Israeli whether it is annexed now or annexed later. The change, when Israel makes this situation official, will mostly be symbolic.

And what about other, more distant parts of the West Bank? Since the final plan is not yet known, it is possible Israel will also annex small settlements that could interfere with a future contiguous Palestinian political entity. But in such a scenario, there is nothing irreversible about the Israeli implementation of sovereignty.

Whatever one's views of the legitimacy or desirability of these Israeli settlements, they are facts that everyone has to acknowledge.

In 1981, Israel imposed its jurisdiction throughout the occupied Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 war; two decades later, it negotiated a possible withdrawal (though it never materialized). Similarly, Israel pulled settlers from Gaza in 2005. That is to say: When the Palestinians get back to the negotiating table, they can still make claims for annexed land and potentially be granted it in any peace deal.

To make a long story short: Annexation does not change realities. Whether it makes peace more or less likely is something that only one side decides — the Palestinians.