Besides dealing with the Covid-19 emergency, the only other major issue Israel’s new coalition government will likely address in its first six months is the application of Israeli law (“ha’chalat ha’chok” — the words used in the government platform) to the 30 percent of the West Bank envisioned by the Trump peace plan to come under Israeli sovereignty. The other 70 percent of the West Bank, according to the plan, is to be preserved for the time being as land for a future demilitarized Palestinian state.
Should we call this action the “application of Israeli law” or “annexation?” Is this just semantics, or does it make a difference what this policy is called? The value of effective branding is undeniable. Examples abound. Anti-abortion activists hit the mother lode in the 1960s when they seized upon the term “pro-life.” To counter, those who favored the wide availability of abortion framed their position as “pro-choice.”
I have heard Israeli government representatives assert that the term annexation is not appropriate in this situation because it implies the idea of one country seizing all or part of another country. Since the West Bank has never officially been recognized as a country, they argue, this territory is incapable of being annexed. Technically, there is some validity to this analysis.
On the other hand, those who oppose this pending Israeli policy generally use the term annexation. They point to the fact that the international community recognizes a future Palestinian state in the West Bank, the borders of which must be negotiated and cannot be determined by Israel unilaterally. Moreover, opponents of the policy stress that Israel is committed under the Oslo agreement not to change the status of the West Bank. Despite Israeli government efforts to bury the term annexation, it continues to be used by virtually all the major media outlets and most American Jewish organizations.
This ideologically driven struggle over terminology does not end there. Soon after Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 War, many on the political right who thought in terms of Greater Israel began calling it Judea and Samaria. As they correctly pointed out, this was the ancient heartland of the Jewish people. Those on the left who favored a territorial compromise with Jordan, and then later with the Palestinians, generally used the term West Bank. As time passed, this distinction blurred somewhat. For example, the noted author Yossi Klein Halevi unequivocally regards the West Bank as Judea and Samaria, but, under certain conditions, he would be ready to sacrifice part of it to a Palestinian state for the sake of peace.
And what do you call places in the West Bank where, since 1967, hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews have moved, built their homes, and created an extensive infrastructure? If seen as an impediment to peace with the Palestinians, they are “settlements.” On the other hand, if you see these places as destined to be incorporated into Israel, they are “Jewish communities.”
The branding game goes on and on. Is the West Bank occupied, conquered, liberated, administered or disputed? Over the years, it has been given all these descriptors. Which one you choose places you either in the territorial compromise camp or the Greater Israel camp. The international community often refers to the West Bank as “occupied Palestinian territory,” a designation that upsets not only the Jewish political right, but also many in the center as well.
While understanding this West Bank discourse is instructive, it is best not to get too caught up in it. In the end, it is Israel’s policy that really counts. So, on that front, what is to be done? If the Israeli government follows through on its plan to extend Israeli sovereignty over 30 percent of the West Bank, that means Palestinians living there will reside inside Israel without gaining the political and civil rights of citizenship. Not only is that harmful to our understanding of how democracy works, but many experts have expressed the fear that this could be a death knell for a viable two-state outcome. With continued control by a right-wing Israeli government, reinforced by the growing influence of the Greater Israel settler movement, one can easily envision 30 percent becoming 100 percent.
The alternative, which the current Israeli government shows no sign of embracing, is to work with the Palestinians to create conditions on the ground that over time could lead to two states for two peoples. The latter option, which has been spelled out in detail by such groups as Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS), http://en.cis.org.il/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Enhancing-West-Bank-Stability-and-Security.pdf will be challenging. The Palestinians have been less than ideal partners. But the two-state outcome affords the best, and, I believe, the only chance of maintaining Zionism’s core vision, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, of a secure and democratic nation-state of the Jewish people at peace with its neighbors.
Regardless of how you name the policy, we are at a historic inflection point. Which way the Israeli government decides to go here affects Israel’s citizens most directly. But, make no mistake, it also will have profound consequences for the entire Jewish people. n
Martin J. Raffel is former senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.