Arab lead­ers warn Is­rael against plans to an­nex West Bank

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN AND STEVE HEN­DRIX sudarsan.raghavan@wash­post.com steve.hen­drix@wash­post.com

cairo — A suc­ces­sion of Arab lead­ers and of­fi­cials have sharply warned Is­rael against mov­ing for­ward with a con­tro­ver­sial plan to an­nex Pales­tinian lands in the Is­raeli-oc­cu­pied West Bank as early as this week — an ac­tion they say could desta­bi­lize the re­gion and un­der­mine peace ef­forts.

Jor­dan’s King Ab­dul­lah has de­clared it “un­ac­cept­able” and warned of a “mas­sive con­flict” in the re­gion. Se­nior Jor­da­nian of­fi­cials have threat­ened to re­con­sider their peace treaty with Is­rael or their se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion agree­ments. Egypt, the only other Arab na­tion that has signed a peace treaty with Is­rael, has also ob­jected, as have Saudi Ara­bia and Bahrain.

The United Arab Emi­rates said an­nex­a­tion would im­peril Is­rael’s chances of build­ing stronger ties to Per­sian Gulf na­tions. The head­line of an opin­ion piece pub­lished in an Is­raeli news­pa­per by Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s am­bas­sador to the United States, read: “It’s Ei­ther An­nex­a­tion or Nor­mal­iza­tion.”

To many Pales­tini­ans, the push­back com­ing from Arab coun­tries is wel­come, es­pe­cially to those who have de­tected a de­gree of fa­tigue and si­lence from their neigh­bors in re­cent years as coun­tries have fo­cused less on the con­flict and more on qui­etly im­prov­ing ties with Is­rael.

“I’m def­i­nitely pleased they are say­ing some­thing, be­cause there have been years when they said noth­ing,” said Diana Buttu, an ac­tivist and former ne­go­tia­tor for the Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion now liv­ing in Haifa.

But it re­mains to be seen whether Arab lead­ers will go beyond mere state­ments of sol­i­dar­ity for Pales­tini­ans and take con­crete mea­sures in the event of an­nex­a­tion, Pales­tini­ans and re­gional an­a­lysts say. Pres­sure from the streets to do so could be lim­ited, as Arabs across the re­gion are dis­tracted by the coro­n­avirus pan­demic, eco­nomic in­sta­bil­ity, civil wars and other woes.

Ad­di­tion­ally, the grad­ual warm­ing of re­la­tions be­tween the Jewish state and its neigh­bors is based on com­mon goals — con­tain­ing Ira­nian ex­pan­sion­ism, coun­ter­ing ex­trem­ist move­ments — that will prob­a­bly re­main pri­or­i­ties re­gard­less of Is­rael’s ac­tions in the West Bank.

“I have no faith in the state­ments they are mak­ing,” added Buttu, re­fer­ring to Arab lead­ers. “The rap­proche­ment is on the level of gov­ern­ments where their in­ter­ests are the same.”

The West Bank, which the Jewish state has oc­cu­pied since the 1967 Mid­dle East war, is home to as many as 3 mil­lion Pales­tini­ans and roughly 430,000 Is­raeli Jews liv­ing in scores of set­tle­ments. The United Na­tions and most Euro­pean coun­tries con­sider the set­tle­ments il­le­gal, but Is­rael and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion dis­pute this.

It’s un­clear how much land would be an­nexed, should it hap­pen. Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu vowed last year to an­nex the Jor­dan Val­ley, a swath along the West Bank’s bound­ary with Jor­dan, as well as ar­eas con­tain­ing Is­raeli set­tle­ments. This year, Ne­tanyahu said as much as 30 per­cent could be an­nexed.

But Is­raeli me­dia re­ports have sug­gested that any takeover could be 5 per­cent or less of the land, de­pend­ing on what’s ap­proved by the United States. An­nex­a­tion is linked to a plan by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion for re­solv­ing the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict — and the Arab con­dem­na­tions have raised con­cerns about alien­at­ing key U.S. al­lies in the re­gion.

Such de­nun­ci­a­tions didn’t oc­cur after other steps re­cently taken to ben­e­fit Is­rael to Arabs’ detri­ment. When the United States last year rec­og­nized Is­raeli sovereignt­y over the Golan Heights, ter­ri­tory seized from Syria in 1967, Arab lead­ers were crit­i­cal but took no con­crete mea­sures. That was also the case when the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion re­lo­cated the U.S. Em­bassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, after rec­og­niz­ing it as Is­rael’s cap­i­tal.

“Is­rael en­joys a less hos­tile Arab world, a friend­lier Arab world and an Arab world that seeks Is­rael’s help with broader geostrate­gic in­ter­ests in the re­gion,” said Amaney Ja­mal, a Prince­ton pro­fes­sor and co­founder of the Arab Barom­e­ter, which gauges pub­lic opin­ion in the Mid­dle East. “So why is Is­rael not say­ing, ‘Let us main­tain this new era of ties, friend­ships and al­liances and re­solve the Pales­tinian is­sue’? It’s in Is­rael’s strate­gic in­ter­est, but Is­rael is cal­cu­lat­ing that it doesn’t need to.”

So far, Jor­dan has been the most out­spo­ken in its op­po­si­tion to the an­nex­a­tion plans. With its close ties to the United States and Is­rael, it’s also the most in­flu­en­tial Arab coun­try in chang­ing Is­rael’s mind, an­a­lysts say.

Ne­tanyahu and his loy­al­ists have ar­gued that the re­sponse by Arab gov­ern­ments to an­nex­a­tion is likely to be muted be­cause of the in­ter­ests they share with Is­rael in se­cu­rity, trade, tech­nol­ogy and op­po­si­tion to Iran.

But Otaiba, the am­bas­sador, said in his opin­ion piece that “an­nex­a­tion will cer­tainly and im­me­di­ately up­end Is­raeli as­pi­ra­tions for im­proved se­cu­rity, eco­nomic and cul­tural ties with the Arab world and with [the United Arab Emi­rates].”

He added that an­nex­a­tion would “har­den Arab views of Is­rael.” That, an­a­lysts said, could trig­ger pop­ulist anger at Arab lead­ers’ grow­ing rap­proche­ment with Is­rael.

“If the Pales­tini­ans them­selves even­tu­ally be­gin to or­ga­nize, they are likely to draw lots of sup­port from younger Arabs in other coun­tries, who might well chal­lenge their gov­ern­ments’ ties with Is­rael,” said Michelle Dunne, head of the Mid­dle East pro­gram at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace, in an email.

Arab lead­ers, she added, are aware that with Is­rael’s oc­cu­pa­tion, “a de facto Is­raeli an­nex­a­tion of the West Bank” has been on­go­ing for decades. But hopes for a two-state so­lu­tion — an in­de­pen­dent Pales­tinian state co­ex­ist­ing with Is­rael — were al­ways there. An­nex­a­tion would un­der­mine the le­git­i­macy of the Pales­tinian lead­er­ship and spell the end of a two-state so­lu­tion, Arab lead­ers, the United Na­tions and Western of­fi­cials say.

“Once it is clear that there is no longer any re­al­is­tic chance of a vi­able, sov­er­eign state of Pales­tine be­ing cre­ated, it be­comes more dif­fi­cult for Arab lead­ers to jus­tify pub­licly their plans to fur­ther de­velop strate­gic co­op­er­a­tion with Is­rael,” Dunne said.

Many Pales­tini­ans, though, re­main skep­ti­cal about neigh­bor­ing gov­ern­ments and their in­ten­tions.

“I don’t think Is­rael gives a damn for the Arab po­si­tion, ex­cept Jor­dan be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of its re­la­tions with Is­rael and the United States,” said Ghas­san Khatib, a former spokesper­son for the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity. “So whether the Arabs are di­vided or united, whether they op­pose or not op­pose, I don’t be­lieve this is one of the ma­jor fac­tors Is­rael will take into con­sid­er­a­tion when de­cid­ing to an­nex or not.”

Buttu blames Arab diplo­mats for fram­ing the steady en­croach­ment of Is­rael into the West Bank as a threat to im­prov­ing ties and re­gional sta­bil­ity rather than a vi­o­la­tion of ba­sic hu­man rights.

“That’s mis­guided,” Buttu said. “You don’t op­pose it just be­cause it could lead to in­sta­bil­ity and vi­o­lence. You op­pose it be­cause it’s il­le­gal and it’s wrong for the Pales­tinian peo­ple.”

Buttu said Is­rael’s de facto an­nex­a­tion will con­tinue even if Is­rael pulls back from for­mally ex­tend­ing its con­trol over the set­tle­ments.

“On July 2, if [Ne­tanyahu] says, ‘We’re go­ing to hold off,’ is the Arab world go­ing to breathe a sign of re­lief?” Buttu said. “They shouldn’t, be­cause we know there is go­ing to be more land ac­qui­si­tion.”

MO­HAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS

Peace ac­tivists in the Pales­tinian town of Jeri­cho take part in a protest against Is­rael’s con­tro­ver­sial plan to an­nex parts of the Is­rae­lioc­cu­pied West Bank. Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu has vowed to move ahead with it as soon as this week.

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