Pales­tini­ans brace for pos­si­ble an­nex­a­tion

Ne­tanyahu’s plan, a po­ten­tial death blow to two-state hopes, faces re­sis­tance within Is­raeli gov­ern­ment.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Noga Tarnopol­sky and Laura King Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Tarnopol­sky re­ported from Jeri­cho and Times staff writer King from Wash­ing­ton. Staff writer Tracy Wilkin­son in Wash­ing­ton con­trib­uted to this re­port.

JERI­CHO, West Bank — In this sun­baked bib­li­cal oasis, Pales­tini­ans are brac­ing for what they fear will be Is­rael’s bold­est ter­ri­to­rial claim 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 a cen­tury since seiz­ing the ter­ri­tory in the 1967 Mid­dle East 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-yearold 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, Yousef Otaiba, wrote last week in Is­rael’s Ye­diot Aharonot 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 on to the idea of an­nex­a­tion. Is­raeli army of­fi­cers, brief­ing the Cabi­net, have warned that it would prob­a­bly 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 U.S. 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 Pres­i­dent Trump’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 this month, 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 the “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 Demo­cratic-con­trolled House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, at least 189 of 233 Democrats signed a let­ter to Ne­tanyahu last 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 (DIll.), 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 east 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.”

Ah­mad Gharabli AFP/Getty Im­ages

PALES­TINIAN peace ne­go­tia­tor Saeb Erekat, pic­tured Jan. 20, joined thou­sands at a re­cent anti-an­nex­a­tion rally in Jeri­cho, West Bank, to “de­fend my sur­vival.”

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