Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has announced that in a month’s time he will start to annex the large-scale Jewish settlements inside Palestinian territory, a step as provocative as one can imagine. Not even President Donald Trump’s Administration which has supported Israel with many measures has not gone along with such thinking. Supporting the creation of settlements, Trump appears to think, is one thing, annexing a step too far. On the other hand he has made it clear how close to Netanyahu he feels. He may well end up supporting the prime minister.
Most of the world, including all the European allies of the US, will not go along with annexation. The UN ruling that Jewish settlements are illegal under the Geneva Convention is supported by almost every country except the US.
It’s as clear as it’s ever been that a two state solution can no longer be a viable political goal, because: a) in terms of the demographics a Muslim majority in Israeli-controlled territory is less than a decade a way, b) the Israelis have effectively already created a single state encompassing both Jews and Palestinians. To all intents and purposes it imitates the South Africa of apartheid days, a unitary state with a minority group attempting to rule by oppression over a majority.
The only way to bring peace is to do what the white South Africans did under President F.W. de Klerk. As de Klerk once explained it to me, he felt compelled to negotiate with the African National Congress led by Nelson Mandela, not because of the outside world's sanctions, but because he realized that South Africa was becoming unliveable for all and a way had to be found for the minority to live safely under the rule of the majority.
It's time overdue for the U.S. and Europe to make clear that the preservation of Israel as a pure Jewish state is no longer of strategic concern whose interests must be preserved at all cost, by money, by political muscle and, in case of a showdown, by military equipment. If this penny can be made to drop in the Israeli mind and the Jewish diaspora then, as did the white South Africans, it would be time to sit down with the Palestinians and work out how to return to a two-state solution or to hold an election in a unitary state.
But first for this to happen the West has to shed its notion of the whole of the Middle East being strategically important. In an important essay in Prospect magazine, Edward Luttwak from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, made a convincing argument for this.
In strategic terms, he argued, the Arab-Israeli conflict has become almost irrelevant since the end of the Cold War. The conflict has had no impact on oil prices since the 1973 Saudi embargo, the last time the 'oil weapon' was wielded.
The US and some of its European friends seem to have bought the Israeli argument that they are potentially up against the threat of the combined armies of the Arab world. But military expenditure in all the Arab states, apart from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, has fallen rapidly since the 1973 war. Even when Egypt was aided by massive Soviet military purchases and gifts in the 1960s it was quickly defeated in both 1967 and 1973.
The annexation would make the West Bank into a patchwork of Bantustans as existed in South Africa during the years of minority rule and apartheid. It is an unstable solution that can only lead to continuous Palestinian uprisings that inevitably will take a big toll on civilians on both sides.
Outsiders, including Trump, have long held out hope for a two-state solution. But Netanyahu has killed this off without satisfactorily explaining to his own public how this will bring them peace. Probably around a half of Israelis don’t back him on this but such is the political game in Jerusalem, at which Netanyahu excels, he is the dominant force.
Hanging over him is his trial for corruption that is coming up in July. By this annexation move he hopes to mobilise the conservative half of the electorate to his defence. Perhaps he hopes to intimidate the judges.
The US and the rest of the West should de-couple itself from the Middle East, from both the Arab side and the Israeli side. It should declare it has no strategic interest in the region. This would create the space for both the Palestinians and the Israelis that they need in order to come to an accommodation.
If Netanyahu persists in his aims he must be made to realize he stands alone. Without Western aid, both civilian and military, and diplomatic support by the US, the Israeli electorate, seeing itself cast loose, might well turn against him by a significant margin. A successor could end the talk of annexation, end the growth of settlements and compensate the Palestinians for land already settled by Jews by giving them Israeli land. This would work to restore the concept of a two-state solution and find a way to make a long overdue peace with the Palestinians. If Netanyahu is convicted in the July trial then maybe this could still happen.