Annexing the West Bank Would Compromise Israel’s Security and Core Values
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is about to make a hasty unilateral annexation of at least parts of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley, under the blessing of U.S. President Donald Trump. Details on the annexation’s scope, format, methodology, timeline, or rationale have not yet been disclosed to Israel’s security cabinet.
The annexation process led by Netanyahu is of negative character, devoid of any strategic consideration (except for messianic right-wing platforms), detrimental to the country’s security, disruptive to its Jewish-democratic nature, and bound to drag Israel into years of violence at great cost.
In contrast the government of Ehud Barak (in which one of us served as chief of staff and policy coordinator) in its 2000 unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon and Ariel Sharon’s government in its 2005 unilateral Gaza Strip disengagement, have both led to long-term favorable strategic changes for Israel. Neither were free of mistakes, but there is no doubt that in doing so they have also saved the lives of Israeli soldiers and civilians.
The 1982 Lebanon war, which lasted 18 years, began as an allegedly limited operation. Two decades and over 1,200 dead soldiers later, Israel left Lebanon. Here is what the then-senior Israeli generals said in the TV documentary A War with No Name:
“Today, in retrospect, I think it was a mistake.” – Major General Kaplinsky
“There was a thought deadlock… I would have expected that… after a thorough analysis, after maybe 3, 5, or 7 years, they would have decided to get out from there.” – Lieutenant General Mofaz
“Somehow a fixation is formed. How? You get used to it; you fear a new situation… you hear the consensus all the time.” – Major General Levin
“Stagnation comes at a costly price.” – Brigadier General Tamir
Eventually, it was the civil society movement “Four Mothers” that brought about the war’s end. With the courage, fortitude, and endless determination typical only of mothers protecting their sons’ lives, they put a single question to the generals: “what for?” They did it concurrently with a brave and determined leader, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who kept a campaign promise to take the Israel Defense Force out of Lebanon within a year.
Similarly wise was the Sharon government’s strategic decision to disengage unilaterally from Gaza, albeit lacking a conveyance to the public of a security-political context. Regrettably, this level-headed decision was deficiently implemented in the fields of diplomacy, short and mid-term security, societal and economic aspects. Nonetheless, Israel sent a clear message that it had no intention to thwart its Jewish-democratic nature by holding on to all the Palestinian territory, even if it is partly populated by Israelis, and will act as it sees right without giving others the right to veto its decisions.
Now Israel again faces a crucial decision: a unilateral annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank, based on Trump’s “Deal of the Century.”
Hundreds of senior national security veterans say annexing 30 percent of the West Bank is pointless and carries with it grave and needless security risks. They, along with many others, see the annexation as an irresponsible deviation from the basic vision of Israel as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people, safe and moral, with recognized borders and international legitimacy. In their eyes, such a move is bound to recklessly harm strategic assets like peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt. In previous negotiations Israel has not asked for a sovereign border in the Jordan Valley, but merely a long-term security presence and complementary arrangements with Israeli intelligence capabilities.
Reliable security studies suggest that a gradual withdrawal from the Valley, perhaps with American or U.N. forces stationed as well, can provide Israel with necessary intelligence and security in its east. Annexation is likely to bring about violence and terrorism, as well as international opposition from Israel’s allies, the end of security coordination with the Palestinian Authority, and the eventual collapse of that authority. Add to that the creation of a winding and complicated friction area and 1400-km long, vulnerable boundaries for Israel.
The subsequent scenario is both predictable and unpleasant: sinking into the mud of Palestinian uprising and terrorist attacks, with the Israel Defense Force having to enter, once again, into Palestinian-populated civilian centers and manage the day-to-day lives of millions of Palestinians.
It seems that just like before the invasion of Lebanon four decades ago, there has been no thorough assessment as to the implications of taking such a detrimental course. Two weeks before the due date, no staff work has been processed, and decision makers have had no in-depth discussions about the annexation’s goals, consequences, repercussions, or risks. They have considered no alternatives to bring about a better outcome for the country.
Once again the game changers might be the successors of the “Four Mothers” movement, “Women Wage Peace,” of which one of us is an active member. This 40,000-strong group of women has also risen to defend children and acted to secure for them a future of security and peace. Among other things, the movement is promoting the “Political Alternative First” bill, designed to prevent decision-making process failures such as the persistence of erroneous conceptions or a lack of orderly staff work. The blueprint aims to prevent political leaders from delving into tactics instead of strategies, into petty politics and partisan interests instead of plans for a safer and better future based on freedom, justice, and peace.
Implementing the mechanisms suggested in the bill may ensure that soldiers will not be sent into battle or policing missions until all other non-military alternatives have been thoroughly considered, and until there is no doubt that a violent confrontation is truly necessary. For these compelling reasons, let us demand the passage of the “Political Alternatives First” bill.
Accountable and responsible leaders must exhaust every possibility of a political agreement, which is respectful and agreed upon by the respective parties to the conflict. Palestinians and Israelis have each accumulated a long list of violations and infringements of signed agreements. If annexation leads to a single state, this would be lethal to Zionism and would likewise detrimentally affect the Palestinian aspiration for a peacefully negotiated statehood. Such a scenario would result in perpetual conflict and likely deteriorate into a civil war.
Only a political agreement will promote Israel’s national security and inner strength and maintain its nature in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, while bringing about, gradually, a safer future.
Col (res.) Attorney Gilead Sher, a senior fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies INSS in Tel Aviv and the Baker Institute in Houston, served as a senior Israeli negotiator and Chief of Staff to Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Tami Yakira is an attorney, peace activist, and an executive member of Women Wage Peace.