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Israel may move to annex a big chunk of the West Bank soon, derailing hopes for a Palestinian state

Saeb Erekat, secretary of the Palestine Liberation Organization, speaks during a press conference in Ramallah on April 10, 2019, following the Israeli elections. (Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

In this sun-baked biblical oasis, Palestinians are bracing for what they fear will be Israel’s boldest territorial claim ever outside of war.

“We will stay here whatever they do — we are not leaving our land,” said Ahmad Yagi, a teacher in his 50s in Aqabat Jaber, a nearby Palestinian refugee camp.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that as soon as Wednesday, Israel may move to annex up to 30% of the West Bank, home to sites sacred to the major monotheistic religions and the heartland of what many Palestinians and much of the rest of the world have long hoped will someday be a Palestinian state.

In the more than half-century since seizing the territory in the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel has maintained a military occupation and built an archipelago of Jewish settlements, some hilltop hamlets, others the size of cities.

Now Palestinians are counting on the weight of world opinion, the constraints of Israeli politics and the lack of a clear mandate from the United States to stop Netanyahu from delivering the death blow to aspirations for Palestinian statehood.

International support for their cause was on display last week in Jericho at an anti-annexation rally attended by thousands of Palestinians and many senior Western diplomats — though none from the United States.

The United Nations special Mideast envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, told the crowd that annexation could “kill the very idea that peace and statehood for the Palestinian people can be achieved through negotiations.”

Saeb Erekat, a veteran Palestinian peace negotiator, said that despite the risk of COVID-19 — as a 65-year-old lung transplant recipient, he is especially vulnerable — he took part in the rally to “defend my survival.”

“The international community came to us and told us we are not alone,” Erekat said. “They told Netanyahu and Trump: You are on one side, and facing you is international law.”

And Arab states that have engaged in quiet efforts to build ties with Israel warn that annexation would halt tentative steps toward normalization.

Annexation would amount to “unilateral and illegal seizure of Palestinian land,” the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Washington, Youssef Otaiba, wrote last week in Israel’s Yediot Ahronot newspaper.

Netanyahu has yet to tell Israelis, Palestinians or the world exactly what he plans to do.

On Friday, just as Israel was shutting down for the Sabbath, his political rival and partner in governance, Benny Gantz, issued a sharply worded warning against going ahead with annexation.

Amid the coronavirus outbreak and a surge in unemployment, annexation appears to be far down the list of concerns of most Israelis.

In a poll published June 8, just over a third of Israelis said they supported the annexation plan, which includes the provisions for a Palestinian state, albeit a geographically fragmented one.

Senior Israeli security officials, meanwhile, have conspicuously failed to sign onto the idea of annexation. Israeli army officers, briefing the Cabinet, have warned that it would likely provoke a wave of violence directed at Israelis. They have also complained that they have yet to see any maps of the proposed plan.

Netanyahu, who failed in a series of national elections over the last year to secure a parliamentary majority and form a government led by his conservative Likud party, is constrained by a coalition agreement that prevents him from presenting the government with any annexation plan that does not have explicit American approval.

“I am not even certain the Americans have figured out what their final position is,” Zeev Elkin, a close Cabinet ally of Netanyahu, said in a radio interview last week.

The Trump administration has sent mixed signals.

Though Netanyahu and his allies cite a peace plan written by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as a green light to move ahead with annexation, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said last week that extending Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank would be a decision “for Israelis to make.”

The peace plan, which has been widely condemned by European and Arab governments, enshrines numerous Israeli land claims while offering the Palestinians aid and economic benefits.

In talks in Washington last week, Kushner’s team and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman debated ways to frame the strategy and avert violent fallout. The talks ended Thursday with no agreement on “next steps,” a National Security Council official said.

Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway dismissed predictions that there would be violent reaction to annexation as a “scare tactic” in light of what she called “thousands and thousands of years of turmoil there.”

If the White House appears muddled, the U.S. Congress does not. In the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, 191 of 233 Democrats signed a letter to Netanyahu this week, urging that he shelve annexation plans and instead negotiate the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“I believe two states for two peoples is essential to securing a Jewish, democratic Israel living in peace with an independent and viable Palestinian state,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), one of the letter’s authors.

Some observers say the prospect of annexation may paradoxically breathe new life into Palestinian statehood hopes.

“The attempts by Israel to annex the West Bank has given Palestinians a renewed voice to say, ‘Look, it’s now or never, and we want a state as much as we ever have,’” said Louis Fishman, a professor of Middle East history at Brooklyn College.

“You could argue that they are weaker today than they have been, perhaps since 1948,” the year Israel was established, Fishman said. But the Palestinians also could benefit from a growing Western perception that they “are being cheated out of something they deserve.”

Here in Jericho, 15 miles west of Jerusalem and within walking distance of the magical Dead Sea, resignation competes with hope.

“I love my country,” said Valentina Ofeid, a teacher in her 30s who traveled three hours to attend last week’s rally.

She lives in the city of Salfit, where Palestinians and Israeli settlers have repeatedly clashed. The West Bank belongs to Palestine, she said, and annexation would put the lives of her children in danger.

Ahmad Wallaje, a laborer from Jericho, lamented that “the whole world has failed to convince Israel and the United States to give us a state.”

“The whole world recognizes our right to a country,” he said. “ … But the international community may not be pressuring them enough. It cannot be that only two countries decide this question.”


© 2020 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.