In some respects, the seeds of Israel’s current crisis were sown in a lavish New York hotel in the mid-1980s. It was here where Benjamin Netanyahu, acting as Israel’s representative at the United Nations, first met Donald Trump. After their very first meeting, Netanyahu identified Trump as a malleable enough character that he might call upon for favours in later life. It is something of a historical marvel that nearly 40 years after this, the world waits with bated breath to see if Netanyahu will cash in on his biggest favour yet: relying on Trump to turn a blind eye towards Israel’s looming unilateral annexation of the West Bank.
As of July 1st, Netanyahu’s coalition government have had the capacity to hold formal talks on unilaterally annexing portions of Palestinian territory – most likely the entirety of the Jordan Valley and up to 30% of the West Bank, the parameters of which are outlined by Trump’s ‘Peace to Prosperity’ plan from January this year. Although both Netanyahu and the alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz have hinted at delaying the plans until after the inevitable second wave of coronavirus cases, senior officials report that any formal annexation could take place as soon as the end of this month.
For Palestinians living under Israeli sovereignty, the reality will be a second class citizenship status. Netanyahu will go to extreme lengths to safeguard the Jewish majority voting-base in Israel and will ensure Palestinians are denied basic civil and voting rights. While defenders of Israel have long rejected comparisons between the country’s military occupation of Palestine with South Africa’s apartheid regime, a number of Zionists are finding it increasingly difficult to shake off the apartheid label with the likelihood of segregated voting rights and the expropriation of Palestinian land and property.
Even the most hawkish of Israeli governments since 1967 have regarded West Bank annexation as quixotic. But Netanyahu – ever the political opportunist and desperate to cement his legacy – has identified the current vacuum of global leadership as a unique opportunity to radically reimagine the geopolitics of the Middle East and eradicate the possibility of future Palestinian statehood.
With the prospect of such a flagrant violation of international law, countries around the world have warned Israel that it will be considered a global pariah if annexation is pushed through. The EU have warned of “significant consequences” for Israel and the international community will implement robust economic sanctioning – akin to the West’s response to Russia after their illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Here in the UK, while our political institutions have been steadfast in condemning annexation, our communal Jewish institutions have been woefully lagging behind. For what seems to be a rarity in this current political climate, there is an overwhelming consensus in the House of Commons regarding the illegality of Israel’s actions. Even Boris Johnson – by no means historically an ally of Palestinian rights – made a timely intervention by penning a front-page editorial in Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, warning against the proposed move and reinforcing that the UK will not recognise any unilateral changes to the 1967 lines. Likewise, in the Labour Party, Lisa Nandy has advocated banning any imports of goods coming from West Bank settlements into the UK, a position supported by opposition leader Keir Starmer.
But where our political institutions have shown a moral clarity towards annexation – despite being weak on the broader issue of Israeli occupation – communal Jewish leadership has been caught floundering. The Board of Deputies, the supposed mouth-piece of Anglo-Jewry, has resisted significant pressure to condemn the proposed annexation . The Board’s President, Marie van der Zyl, has cited a lack of consensus among British Jews in order to speak decisively on the matter and, in recent meetings, certain Deputies have suggested our role as diaspora Jews should be to stay clear of any debates pertaining to Israel’s sovereignty.
Nevertheless, the supposed ‘neutrality’ of the Board has been challenged after van der Zyl denounced Nandy’s proposition as divisive and part of the agenda of the BDS campaign. This intervention demonstrates two disturbing trends. Firstly, the conflation of Nandy’s proposal with the BDS movement is either knowingly or mistakenly misleading: economic sanctions on imports is the conventional response to a country breaching international laws on military annexation, which is an entirely distinct proposal from the platform of BDS. Secondly, it illustrates that the Board is more comfortable condemning those who are willing to hold Israel to account for its actions, rather than having the moral conviction to take a stand against Israel’s human rights abuses itself.
But in the coming weeks and months, the reality for the Board of Deputies – who outwardly advocate for a two-state solution – will become crystal clear: it is irreconcilable for a major Jewish communal institution to stay silent on the issue of annexation and still profess to be working effectively towards a peaceful settlement in the region. Annexation will push the two-state solution to a point of no-return. It has been 6 years since the most recent spate of peace talks between leaders of both sides and, since then, the level of public support from both Palestinians and Israeli Jews for a two-state solution has fallen to its lowest level in decades (both at 43%). Israel claiming unilateral sovereignty over sections of the West Bank will set the cause back by generations.
By any metric, annexation will further destabilise an already crisis-laden region. From a humanitarian perspective, it will further violate the rights and dignities of the Palestinian people and subjegate them to an apartheid regime. From a security perspective, it will endanger both the lives of Israeli and Palestinian communities as tensions will undoubtedly rise. From a geopolitical perspective, Israel will certainly feel the heft of economic sanctions from the international community for years to come.
Bearing in mind that with the wider goal of upending the current occupation and establishing a meaningful peace, where both Israeli and Palestinian statehood can flourish, this current moment seems like a fork in the road. We can either be resolute in our values of human rights, international law and the dignity of Palestinian livelihoods; or we can be complicit in a neverending regime of oppression and segregation, where peaceful reconciliation is a mere fantasy. Silence, or equivocation, assumes the latter. The British Jewish community has a choice to make. Because right now, at this critical juncture, the centre cannot hold.
Gideon Leibowitz is LJY-Netzer’s representative on the Board of Deputies of British Jews