EXCLUSIVE: Labour Frontbenchers warn of ‘Rubicon’ moment as Netanyahu misses self-imposed deadline for Israeli West Bank annexation

By Imogen Smith

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not proceed with his promise to begin annexing up to 30 per cent of West Bank territory on Wednesday.

Following overwhelming international opposition to the proposed move, Mr Netanyahu allowed his self-imposed deadline to pass without significant comment.

It comes as Labour party figures voiced their concerns to Redaction Politics regarding the impact any annexation would have on the viability of a two-state solution and international law. 

Wayne David, Shadow Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, told Redaction Politics: “Our position reflects the gravity of the situation. A unilateral annexation of as much as 30 per cent of the West Bank would be a flagrant breach of international law and would be in breach of several U.N. resolutions.”

He was joined by Stephen Kinnock, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Palestine, who told Redaction Politics on Monday: “The membership of the APPG on Palestine wholeheartedly welcome and agree with the clear and robust position that Labour’s Shadow FCO team has taken on this issue. 

“If annexation goes ahead the prospect of a two-state solution would be severely damaged, so this really is a Rubicon moment for Palestine, for Israel and for the international rules-based order.”

The days leading up to the deadline saw confusion and indecision on the proposed annexation, with Israel’s Alternate Prime Minister – and Mr Netanyahu’s former rival – Benny Gantz telling his party on Monday: “Anything that is not related to the coronavirus will wait.”

Signalling on Wednesday morning that the plan was not to go ahead, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi told Israeli radio: “It seems unlikely to me that this will happen today.”

Mr Gantz and Mr Ashkenazi, both from the centrist and liberal Blue and White alliance currently in coalition with Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party, reportedly pushed for a delay to annexation.

Although the plan currently remains in political limbo, there is no doubt that the annexation may still go ahead in the near future – perhaps in the initially reduced form of annexing major settlements closest to Jerusalem.

Mr Netanyahu’s proposed West Bank annexation follows the US peace plan set out by President Trump on January 28 this year.

The plan was greeted at the time with delight as “the deal of the century” by the Israeli Prime Minister, who said: “The deal of the century is the opportunity of a century, and we’re not going to pass it by.”

The US plan would see Jerusalem established as Israel’s “undivided” capital, with a potential Palestinian capital to the east of the city.

It would also drastically change the current borders of the West Bank, recognising the majority of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory as part of Israel, as well as the Jordan Valley, a fertile strip of land along the Jordanian border which makes up about a third of the occupied West Bank.

Despite the US stating that their plan leads to a “realistic” two state solution, it goes directly against the 1967 borders of a future two state solution put forward by many in the international community.  

Under the US plan, a future Palestinian state would receive sections of the desert bordering Egypt and near Gaza to compensate.

Many questions regarding the status of Palestinians living in areas not recognised by the Israeli government and of Arab Israelis living in border towns remain.

The plan was rejected outright by the Palestinian leadership, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas calling it a “conspiracy”.

In protest against Mr Netanyahu’s more recent statement that he would act unilaterally to annex territory in the West Bank earmarked in the US plan to become part of Israel, the Palestinian leadership suspended cooperation with Israel’s security and civil agencies.

In the lead up to Mr Netanyahu’s stated deadline of 1 July, the international community raised significant opposition to the proposed annexation, putting pressure on Mr Netanyahu to halt his plans.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet said on Monday: “Annexation is illegal. Period. Any annexation. Whether it is 30 per cent of the West Bank, or 5 percent. I urge Israel to listen to its own former senior officials and generals, as well as to the multitude of voices around the world, warning it not to proceed along this dangerous path.

“The precise consequences of annexation cannot be predicted. But they are likely to be disastrous for the Palestinians, for Israel itself, and for the wider region. The Secretary-General of the United Nations has called on the Israeli Government to abandon its annexation plans, and I back that call one hundred percent.

“It will grievously harm the prospect of a two-state solution, undercut the possibilities of a renewal of negotiations, and perpetuate the serious existing human rights and international humanitarian law violations we witness today.”

More than 1,000 parliamentarians from across Europe signed a letter last week strongly opposing the plans.

On June 27, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy called for a ban on the import of goods from illegal settlements in the West Bank if the Israeli government were to go ahead with the annexation plans.

Steve McCabe, Chair of Labour Friends of Israel, told Redaction Politics: “LFI is unequivocally opposed to annexation and urges the government of Israel to think very carefully about taking such a dangerous step.

“We would caution against demands for sanctions partly because of the unintended consequences and also the motives of some who are demanding them e.g. BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] who are opposed to a two-state solution and whose founder Omar Barghouti believes that there should be no ‘Jewish state in any part of Palestine.’”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson broke his relative silence on the looming annexation on Wednesday morning with an opinion piece published in widely read Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

Mr Johnson wrote: “It is with sadness that I have followed the proposals to annex Palestinian territory. As a life-long friend, admirer and supporter of Israel, I am fearful that these proposals will fail in their objective of securing Israel’s borders and will be contrary to Israel’s own long-term interests.

“Annexation would represent a violation of international law. It would also be a gift to those who want to perpetuate the old stories about Israel.

“I profoundly hope that annexation does not go ahead. If it does, the UK will not recognise any changes to the 1967 lines, except those agreed between both parties. There is another way.”

Regarding the international response, Saleh Higazi, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, told Redaction Politics: “While we are happy to see the reaction from the international community guided by international law against annexation, we continue to urge states to address the decades old structural violations with action and not only words.

“One immediate action states, including the UK, can take is to stop businesses domiciled in their territories from doing business in or with illegal Israel settlements. This is the type of action that can send the necessary message concerning ‘annexation’ but also address the violations that stand.

“We also urge them to give full practical and political support to the International Criminal Court as it examines the situation in Palestine in what we hope will lead to an investigation into crimes under international law and mark the start of the end of Israel’s impunity.

“I would have hoped that these calls are reflected in a public letter from the UK PM to Israelis published in one the most widely read outlets in the country.

“The UK PM needs to express concern and take actions against the systematic human rights violations suffered by Palestinians on a daily basis and urge Israel, as the friend he describes himself to be, to stop.

“I would have liked him to urge Israel to drop “annexation” plans as a first step towards ending the system of institutionalized discrimination and the rampant impunity for crimes under international law.”

Wayne David added to Redaction Politics: “Boris Johnson’s condemnation of annexation is to be welcomed, as is his statement that annexation if it occurred, would not be recognised by the UK.

“But he should have indicated that there would be very real consequences if Netanyahu pressed ahead with annexation.

“It is unclear at this point exactly what is going to happen during the next few weeks. But Netanyahu still wants annexation to take place. It is therefore essential that international pressure is built-up so it is made clear that annexation is fundamentally wrong and there will be consequences if it occurs.”

Annexation would also seriously jeopardise the recently warming relations between Israel and several Arab nations.

UAE ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba, wrote an op-ed on June 12, also published on the front page of Yedioth Ahronoth, warning Israel against its planned course of action and expressing hope that the closer relations of recent years between much of the Arab world and Israel might be able to continue in the future.

The UAE ambassador said that applying Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley would end any such hopes.

Mr Al Otaiba wrote: “It will ignite violence and rouse extremists. It will send shockwaves around the region, especially in Jordan, whose stability — often taken for granted — benefits the entire region, particularly Israel.”

Jordan has threatened to withdraw from or downgrade its 1994 peace treaty with Israel over the annexation.

Within the West Bank, many Palestinians contend that any annexation by Israel would formalise an already present reality.

Hakim Sabbah, Director of Project Hope, a volunteer organisation based in Nablus in the West Bank, told Redaction Politics: “The annexation started from the first day of the occupation, it’s a process that has never stopped. Everybody knows that the Israelis will not leave the settlements so we can consider that they have already started annexation with the settlements and the land that they occupy.”

Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian-American scholar wrote last week in +972 Magazine: “Contrary to the popular narrative, annexation will not kill the two-state solution — you cannot kill something that has long been dead. Rather, annexation is dragging and displaying the two-state solution’s corpse before the world.”

For the Israeli government – and Mr Netanyahu in particular – a calculation must be made which weighs up almost universal international opposition, an increased risk to security, severe damage to relations with Arab nations, as well as the financial cost of annexing territory, against the domestic political gains to be made from such a move.  

For Mr Netanyahu – sworn-in for a fifth term as prime minister on May 17 in a power-sharing arrangement with former opponent Benny Gantz – annexation promises a legacy as the leader who officially brought Israeli law to the settlements and reclaimed the Jordan Valley.

It also provides a useful distraction from Mr Netanyahu’s ongoing trial on corruption charges, with his next hearing set for July 19.

With the US election in November fast approaching, the window for action with any form of US support is also rapidly narrowing – Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden has made it clear that he does not endorse annexation.  

The factor that may tip the balance for the Israeli government towards or away from action is the White House’s response in the coming weeks.

Yaacov Yadgar, Professor of Israeli Studies at the University of Oxford, told Redaction Politics: “We can’t rule out the possibility that they will try to go ahead with it. In the Israeli government’s calculation, the aftermath in terms of the international reaction to this would still be worth it if they want to.

“My inclination would be to look towards the White House. With unconditional and full backing from the White House I can see how Netanyahu’s government will still go ahead with some form of annexation, trying to make some gains before the November elections in the US.”

The US has not officially supported Netanyahu’s immediate annexation plans, with Jared Kushner – the lead on the US plan for peace – reportedly urging caution over the risk to US ties in the Gulf.

For President Trump, as for Mr Netanyahu, domestic politics is of key concern.

The evangelical vote is key to Trump’s November re-election campaign and support for Israeli settlements and annexation is popular amongst these voters.

The US watered down its support for the Israeli government in recent weeks, with numerous White House meetings about whether to greenlight Israeli plans reportedly ending in indecision.

Kellyanne Conway, advisor to the President, stated on 24 June that Trump would soon be making a “big announcement”, leading many to speculate that a US endorsement of annexation might come before 1 July.

No such announcement came, however, and the US is yet to openly support Israel’s annexation plans.

With annexation still very much on the cards, international pressure must be maintained if the Israeli government is to be prevented from pressing ahead.

This week the calculation of whether or not to proceed with annexation resulted in a stay of action, but with an endorsement from the US or a wavering of the international response, Mr Netanyahu may well go ahead with his plans, risking further violence, oppression and the end of a viable two state solution for the people of Israel and Palestine.

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Featured Image: Pixabay

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