Yesterday the Knesset voted on a bill to legalize Israeli settlement outposts in the West Bank. The bill is the latest in a long line of legislative attempts to indefinitely prolong the political and legal limbo in which Israel has been stuck since 1967. Every few months, yet another version of the idea to annex all or parts of the West Bank makes headlines; within weeks, it evaporates for one reason or another.
A brief timeline: In 2007, Likud MK Yisrael Katz proposed a bill to annex the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to Israel; in 2010, fellow party member Tzipi Hotovely proposed to annex West Bank settlements to Jerusalem; in 2012, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennet presented his vision for annexation, Minister of Culture Miri Regev proposed an annexation bill, and Jewish Home MK Orit Struck proposed to apply Israeli law to West Bank settlements; in 2014, then-House Committee Chairman Yariv Levine also attempted to have Israeli law applied in the West Bank, while Israel Katz – by then Minister of Transportation – declared that he would promote a bill to annex the town of Ma’ale Adumim and the Gush Etzion settlement bloc to Jerusalem; in 2015, Jewish Home MKs Yinon Magal and Bezalel Smotrich advanced a bill to apply Israeli law to settlements; and in 2016, Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked announced that she was reviewing a proposed annexation bill, while Miri Regev announced late that year that she would work to have “Israeli sovereignty applied to all of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]”.
All these bills, presented to the Israeli public as a solution to the Palestinian problem, vanished into thin air for good reason. They are a straw man. Why? Because Israel has two options: annex the West Bank and give 2.7 million Palestinians citizenship, or work towards a two-state agreement. In recent years, the settler Right has bandied about the fiction that a third way exists – namely, to annex all or parts of the West Bank. The various forms of this idea share a basic common factor: willfully ignoring the fact that the conflict cannot be resolved without addressing the future, or even existence, of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank.
Despite what the Jewish Home Party has tried to sell its voters, Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked neither wish, nor know how, to take responsibility for 2.7 million Palestinians. That is why their bills, Facebook rants, and sentimental declarations make no mention of what will actually happen if Israel annexes more of the West Bank. What will be the legal status of Palestinian residents? How will security arrangements work? How will Israel’s economy deal with the massive implications? Every time the White House reiterates its commitment to the two-state solution, Netanyahu can breathe easy again.
Israel’s right wing is busy with legalistic machinations to buy time because reality hurts. For fifty years, the overarching goal of the Right has been to have Israel officially annex the territories it occupied in 1967. Beyond enforcing Israeli sovereignty, this is about incorporating the land into what Israelis, Palestinians, and the international community view as the state of Israel. The aim has been to achieve broad recognition of the Jewish people’s right to these territories, first and foremost among Israeli Jews themselves. In that sense, the Right has abjectly failed.
That is the context for understanding yesterday’s vote on the latest legislative effort. However, actually implementing annexationist hopes is little more than a daydream. The millions of Palestinians who live in the West Bank will not magically disappear, no matter how hard MK Smotrich prays. Seventy percent of Israelis oppose a bi-national state and remain consistently in favor of separating from the Palestinians. These are not ‘alternative facts’. Israel has to choose between separating from the Palestinians and making them citizens. That is a fact.
But why deal with reality when you can win headlines, get ‘likes’, and soothe your electorate? This recurring drama is not only tiring, it is dangerous. The Left has to expose these repeated spins and criticize them, rather than help the Right use empty rhetoric for its politically expedient choice: buying more time for an eternal limbo.