Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Hands have been wringing over Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s revelation that Israel has been discussing its annexation of the West Bank—long a diplomatic taboo—with the Trump White House.
Trump already exploded a central rule of the long-played diplomatic game by conferring U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December. If the new American standard is simply to recognize the settlement facts that Israel has created on the ground in the last half century, then Trump’s acknowledging Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank is a no-brainer.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must think that he has died and gone to heaven. While U.S.-Israeli relations have long been framed by serial platitudes attesting to the most wonderful, productive, and intimate ties in history between the two countries, it is fair to say that no previous administration like the one now running the White House has so internalized the Israeli narrative on Jewish settlement in the land of Israel.
The prime minister’s recent revelation that he has raised the issue of annexation with Washington rings true. Numerous reports, including in this publication, attest to this effort. The speedy White House rebuke, its crisp denunciation of Bibi’s claim as “false,” and Jerusalem’s speedy “clarification” are important, but not because they honestly address the question of whether discussions on annexation have taken place.
The challenge Bibi faces is not so much to convince Trump and his closest advisors to adopt his wish list regarding the future of “Judea and Samaria”—a prayer already answered on Jerusalem—but rather to constrain his appetite for historic decisions that are so consequential that they will rouse even the slumbering giant in the Oval Office.
Unlike the hardliners who inhabit his coalition, Bibi cannot become intoxicated by the tempting prospect of taking too big and too public a territorial bite out of the West Bank. Over the last half-century, Israelis across the political spectrum have offered an extraordinary example of the Jewish state’s ability to successfully manage U.S. and broader international opposition to their pursuit of Greater Israel. Throughout this period, politicians left and right were guided, with prominent exceptions, by the practical utility of “deciding not to decide” the fate of the Jerusalem and the West Bank, the settlements, and the three million Palestinians under military rule. For Israel, precipitous implementation of its annexationist agenda risks mobilizing international opposition to its strategic objectives in a manner more effective than has been the case since 1967.
It looks as though this is what has happened in recent days. No doubt emboldened by the historic horizons made tantalizingly possible by Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem, Bibi overreached and fell into the honey trap unwittingly set by his pals in the White House.
“I can tell you that for a while now I’ve been talking about it with the Americans,” Netanyahu revealed in a meeting of his Likud faction, noting an “historic” agreement to annex West Bank settlements. “I’m guided by two principles in this issue,” he explained. “Optimal coordination with the Americans, whose relationship with us is a strategic asset for Israel and the settlement movement; and the fact that it must be a government initiative rather than a private one because it would be a historic move.”
This context is important. It suggests that Netanyahu, by invoking his ties with the White House, was playing defense against colleagues clamoring for an explosive declaration on annexation. But by attempting to win some points—at Trump’s expense—with his erstwhile supporters, he precipitated the unusual White House reprimand.
Members of Netanyahu’s coalition have proposed quite a few annexation bills during the 20th Knesset’s term, passage of which would unleash an international firestorm. These include proposals to annex the settlements of Ma‘ale Adumim, Givat Ze’ev, and Gush Etzion around Jerusalem. Others want to annex the city of Ariel and the entire Jordan Valley.
Israel’s all-too-successful efforts to swallow the West Bank have been marked by a patient application of incremental decisions over half a century—marked by the administrative fixes that have flown largely under the diplomatic radar. Even as the controversy over discussion with the Americans topped the headlines, another milestone in this policy of “creeping annexation” was reached— the seemingly innocuous passage of a law placing Israeli colleges and universities in West Bank settlements (yes, there are such places) under the authority of the Council for Higher Education.
Notwithstanding the domestic political pressure in favor of annexation, Israel’s leadership can be counted upon to show greater discipline and strategic planning than the White House as Israel doggedly pursues its ever-tightening grip over the West Bank. Netanyahu will no doubt be distracted by his growing legal and political troubles, but he can be expected to champion—more effectively than impatient wannabe successors—the realization of Greater Israel and the consolidation of “one state two systems.”