“We keep hearing the word ‘annexation’” regarding Israel’s plans for several major settlement areas and parts of the Jordan River Valley, noted Arsen Ostrovsky, an expert on international law, on a Jewish Policy Center conference call June 25. But that’s the wrong term, he stated. What the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz intend is “application of Israeli sovereignty.”
The difference is crucial legally and politically, Ostrovsky said. When it comes to “annexation” versus “sovereignty” Israel and its supporters “are fighting a war of narratives. … Words matter” because they shape people’s perceptions, positively or negatively, he added.
Palestinian factions, some but not all Arab states and some but again not all member countries of the European Union have warned Israel of dangerous consequences should it declare a formal replacement of ostensibly temporary military administration with sovereign government. At issue as part of the Trump administration’s “Vision for Peace” are large Jewish communities including Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim and up to 30 percent of the Jordan Valley in the disputed West Bank (Judea and Samaria).
A human rights lawyer, Ostrovsky noted that Israel gained the territories in self-defense the 1967 Six-Day War. Jordan illegally had occupied them as a result of aggression during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Previously part of the League of Nations/U.N. Palestine Mandate, under which international law recognized the Jewish people’s right to reestablish its national homeland, Israel hardly can annex “what’s legally yours,” he said.
“We keep hearing about U.N. Security Council Resolution 2234,” adopted in December 2016, Ostrovsky pointed out. The measure falsely condemned Jewish communities in the territories—including post-’67 Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem—as illegal under international law. Hostile to Netanyahu, the Obama administration withheld a U.S. veto.
But the fact that the land at issue “was not taken from another state … is critical under international law,” he said. Territories illegally annexed from one country to another include Russia’s grab of Crimea from Ukraine and Turkey’s Cyprus invasion that created the “Turkish Republic of North Cyprus.” Israel’s presence in the West Bank is contrary to Russia’s in Crimea and Turkey’s on Cyprus, so Resolution 2234 “negates the Jewish people’s very connection to Judea and Samaria,” connections rooted in both history and law.
Further, applying Israeli sovereignty to the 500,000 or 600,000 Jewish residents of the territory would make their lives easier by ending overlapping remnants of Ottoman law, Mandatory regulations and Israeli law. But it would not impose a major change on the region’s Palestinian Arabs, according to Ostrovsky. (The Palestinian Authority claims 2.9 million Arabs live on the West Bank; some Israeli demographers charge that figure double-counts several hundred thousand and ignores emigration of many others.)
Contrary to critics, sovereignty would not create Israeli “apartheid” over Arab communities but “maintain more or less the status quo,” Ostrovsky said. In the long term, should Palestinian leaders finally choose to negotiate an end to the conflict, “these areas could become part of a Palestinian state” with 70 percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, he said. That’s one reason some Jewish settlers are “not jumping up and down for joy” at talk of extending sovereignty.
The Israeli public, considering Palestinian rejection of two-state offers—Israel and a West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestine with eastern Jerusalem as its capital—in 2000, 2001 and 2008 “has moved on. … We don’t have a real peace partner.” That being so, it’s time to regularize the status of many if not most of the Jews living in the territories—and perhaps, by doing so, prod Palestinian leadership finally to negotiate a compromise, Ostrovsky said.
That doesn’t appear likely. He noted that the Palestinian Authority rejected the Trump plan sight unseen and at a recent rally officials declared they would continue fighting for “all of Palestine” including Israel.
A Question of Timing
Netanyahu has said the process of applying sovereignty in parts of the West Bank could begin as early as July 1. Ostrovsky noted many, including some Israelis and U.S. supporters of Israel have asked “why now?” Because, he said,
- Netanyahu pledged to act as part of his Likud Party’s platform in Israel’s recent elections;
- Doing so would complement achieving U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights and in eastern Jerusalem ahead of presidential elections in the United States this November. A win for presumptive Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden—President Barack Obama’s vice president—would mean “a real chance this would be off the table.” Nearly 200 Democratic members of Congress, including some typically pro-Israel members, warned Israel in a letter against “annexation” while roughly the same number of Republicans signed a letter in support, and
- Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian plan, by reversing the Obama administration’s acceptance of Security Council Resolution 2234, recognizes the decision is “for Israel to decide as [would] any democracy … and Netanyahu has the support,” if cautiously, of opposition leaders Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi in the governing coalition.
Also, a broader regional realignment means the Palestinian issue still resonates, but not as strongly as previously with many other Arabs. “There is a need to show solidarity with the Palestinians,” Ostrovsky said of the Arab states and some in Europe, but “this will not be Armageddon.”
“At the end of the day, Iran, Iran, Iran is the primary issue” for Arab Gulf states and some other Sunni Muslim countries, he said, just as it is for Israel. That and good relations with the Trump administration.