[Prefatory Note: Republication of opinion piece published in Al Jazeera English on May 13, 2020. Link is https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/gangster-geopolitics-israel-annexation-plans-200511154825347.html. The published AJE text has been slightly modified.]
These are the strangest of times. On this almost everyone will agree.
Lives all over the planet are being torn apart either by COVIS-19 or as a result of its devastating social and economic dislocations. In such a moment, it is hardly surprising that the best and worst of humanity is being showcased.
Yet what seems worse beyond even these forebodings is the persistence of gangster geopolitics in its various manifestations.
Intensifying U.S. sanctions in the midst of the health crisis on already deeply afflicted societies and suffering populations such as Iran and Venezuela is one striking example. This display of the primacy of geopolitics is highlighted by its rejections of numerous high profile humanitarian appeals for the suspension of sanctions, at least for the duration of the pandemic. Instead of suspension and empathy, we find tone deaf Washington almost gleefully upping its ‘maximum pressure’ policy, perversely grabbing the opportunity to rachet up the pain level.
Another dark tale is the macabre Israeli dance around the disruptive lawlessness of the annexation pledge that Netanyahu has promised to implement as early as July, having the assent of his power-sharing rival, Benny Gantz, to proceed without the need to gain the assent of his coalition co-leader. It is not even controversial to insist that any annexation of occupied Palestinian territory directly violates fundamental norms of international law. Maybe because of this, Israel is poised to annex without even attempting to offer legal justifications for overriding the widely endorsed and rigidly interpreted rule that a sovereign state is not allowed to annex foreign territory acquired by force.
This instance of annexation additionally involves an extreme repudiation of international humanitarian law as embodied in the Fourth Geneva Convention. It amounts to a unilateral move by Israel to change the status of land in the West Bank from that of occupier, since 1967) to that of its sovereign territorial authority. It also disregards the legal pledge in Oslo II (1995) to transfer to Palestine by stages jurisdiction over Area C in the post-Oslo administrative mapping of the West Bank. And further, such contemplated annexation directly challenges the authority of the UN, which by an overwhelming continuous consensus regards Israel’s presence in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza as solely based on force and occupation, making any modification dependent on a prior authoritative expression of Palestinian consent, which is even hard to imagine ever being given. Not only is annexation unlawful, but has the potential to be regionally disruptive, agitating neighbors, especially Jordan, possibly Egypt, and directly challenges the continuing European zombie attachment to a two-state solution.
What has generally been overlooked in the extensive commentary on the annexation prospect is that it not only ignores the Palestinian self-determination, it also ‘forgets’ that the UN has unfulfilled promise and responsibility to find a just solution for Palestine that it inherited from the United Kingdom that had been administering the territory between the two world wars. What had been even in the days of the League ‘a sacred trust’ becomes in the era of post-colonial gangster geopolitics ‘wanton disregard.’
Israelis Insist Annexation is About ‘Security’
For all these reasons it is not surprising that even Israeli heavyweights, including former heads of Mossad and Shin Bet, as well as retired IDF security officers are sounding an alarm. Some militant Zionists oppose annexation at this point because it will expose the delusion that Israel is a democracy as well as a State of the Jewish people as worries mount that absorbing Palestinians in the West Bank will in due course threaten Jewish ethnic hegemony. Of course, none of this Israeli/Zionist ‘second thoughts debate’ objects to annexation because it violates international law, sidesteps and undermines UN or EU authority, and ignores Palestinian inalienable rights. All the objections to annexation from within Israel or among Zionist militants are couched by exclusive reference to a variety of concerns about alleged negative impacts on Israeli security. In particular, these critics from within Israel’s national security establishment are worried about disturbing Arab neighbors and further alienating world public opinion, especially in Europe, and to some extent worry about the reactions of ‘liberal Zionists,’ and thus weakening solidarity bonds of overseas Jews with Israel in the U.S. and Europe.
The pro-annexation side of the Israeli policy debate also mentions security considerations, especially with respect to the Jordan Valley and the settlements, but much less so. Unlike the critics, the more ardent proponents of annexation are land claimants. They invoke a Jewish biblical entitlement to Judea and Samaria (known internationally as the ‘West Bank’). This entitlement is reinforced by referencing Jewish deep cultural traditions and centuries of historical connections between a small Jewish presence as being continuous and this land being treated as a self-created sacred guardianship. As with Israeli critics of annexation, supporters feel no need to explain, or even notice, the disregard of Palestinian grievances and rights. Annexationist don’t dare put forward an argument that the Jewish claims are more deserving of recognition than are the competing national claims of Palestinians, undoubtedly because their case is so weak in terms of uncontested modern ideas of law, as well as the ethics of territorial entitlement.
As has been case throughout the Zionist narrative, Palestinian grievances, aspirations, and even the existence of a Palestinian people is not part of the Zionist imaginary except as political obstacles and demographic impediments. At the same time, all long Zionism has been tactically opportunistic about disclosing the full extent of its project, instead acting in public as if what it could gain under a given set of circumstances was all that it wanted and expected at some future point to acquire. When one considers the evolution of the main drift of Zionism since its inception, the longer-term aspiration of marginalizing Palestinians in a single dominant Jewish state that encompassed the whole of Israel’s ‘promised land’ has never been forsaken. In this sense the UN partition plan while accepted as a solution at the time by the Zionist leadership, is better interpreted as a stepping stone to recovering as much of the promised land as possible. In the course of the last hundred years, from a Zionist perspective utopia became reality, while for the Palestinians reality became dystopia.
The Macabre Dance
How the prelude to annexation is being addressed by Israel and the United States is as dismaying as is the underlying erasure of the Palestinians, except possibly as a restive population to be kept fragmented and as disunited as possible so that their resistance and
objections can be efficiently muted. Israel has already privileged annexation in the Gantz/Netanyahu unity government, making a proposal for annexation to be submitted to the Knesset any time after July 1st. The only precondition accepted by agreement establishing the Netanyahu/Gantz unity government was conforming the contours of the annexation to the territorial allocations embodied in the notoriously one-sided Trump/Kushner ‘From Peace to Prosperity’ proposal, which seems reasonable to treat as tantamount to an outright stamp of approval by the U.S. Government. Even without the disclosure of the Trump peace plan, U.S. approval was hardly ever in doubt. It follows from Trump’s endorsement of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights in occupied Syrian territory a few months ago.
As could be expected, Trump’s America is creating no friction, not even whispering to Netanyahu at least to offer legal justifications or explain away the negative effects of annexation on Palestinian peace prospects. Instead, the American Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has given a green light to West Bank annexation even before Israel formalized its claim, declaring provocatively that annexation is a matter for the Israelis to determine on their own (as if neither Palestinians nor international law had any relevance). He added that the U.S. will convey its opinions privately to the government of Israel.
Perhaps, this is a wily move by Washington. In effect, leaving it to Israel to handle any regional or UN blowback resulting from carrying out this controversial annexation. If an international pushback of any consequence occurs, the Israeli government would have to take responsibility for handling the outcry. In this sense, perhaps the Trump administration is learning the game, by this time seeking to avoid, or at least deflect, the angry reactions directed at the U.S. in the UN and elsewhere after announcing in December 2017 its intention to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
In the undisclosed background, the calloussness of the annexation initiative seems designed to neuter the UN and blunt international criticism of Israel. It is expected that annexation will be greeted by strong rhetoric of denunciation from several European leaders and possibly candidate Biden, but unaccompanied by any serious push for an international campaign to reverse this taking of Palestinian land. On the basis of past experience, it seems likely that after a few days of media coverage concerns will subside, and the world will move on. Even the Palestinians discouraged by years of fruitless waiting, seem to be suffering, at least temporarily, from a combination of resistance fatigue and ineffectual solidarity initiatives. Such an assessment, is best understood as one more sign that Israel/U.S. relations are being managed in accord with ‘gangster geopolitics,’ and without paying heed to international law or UN authority. Such a pejorative label intends to condemn any annexation such as this one that sweeps law and morality aside while political space is forcibly cleared for land theft.
While gangster geopolitics may be extinguishing the last remnant of Palestinian hopes for political compromise and a diplomacy based on a genuine commitment to equity and equality, there are voices of resistance struggling to be heard. I highlight my dissent to annexation by describing this critical response as ‘gangsta geopolitics’ borrowing from pop culture’s ‘gangsta rap’ that fights back from the streets of the world on behalf of the people suffering from racist police tactics. Of course, this is a metaphor, yet it illuminates an incredible pattern of official behavior that is hard to believe is acknowledged in Israeli public discourse.
First, there is the defiant nature of the Israeli annexation claim. Secondly, there is the single qualification that Israel must obtain a geopolitical stamp of approval from the U.S. Government before going forward with annexation. Thirdly, that the U.S. Government seems to throw the ball back to Israel by saying the decision to annex is Israel’s to make, yet it will give Israel’s the benefit of its private opinion on the matter, presumably on the tactics of timing and presentation, without any consideration of matters of principle.
There is a ghostly melody accompanying this macabre dance. Israel tames its unilateralism by a gesture of geopolitical deference, and by this posturing, acts as if the approval of the United States matters as something more than a political show of support. The U.S. doesn’t question the Israeli logic, yet it doesn’t want to accept responsibility for a public show of approval, leaving Israel free to act as it wishes although withholding, at least for now, any expression of approval or disapproval with respect to annexation.
This leaves unattended the awkward gap between the Israeli unity government agreement with its requirement to obtain U.S. approval and Pompeo’s demurrer. Whether this will cause any problems as the July date approaches is unlikely, especially as Israel will present annexation as a partial implementation of the Trump proposals. I suspect that the U.S. private message will be one of discreet approval, which Netanyahu will undoubtedly treat as satisfying the agreement with Gantz.
What stands out here is the arrogance of the politics of annexation. Not only are the rules and procedures of the world public order cast aside, but the internal discourse on the transfer of rights is carried on as if the people most affected are irrelevant, a kind of ‘internal Orientalism.’ Let’s hope that we who resort to gangsta rap to put these developments in the perspective they deserve, can do more at the time when the annexation move is formalized than gnash our teeth in frustration while observing this lamentable spectacle unfold.