A version of this article appeared in the Sydney Daily Telegraph on July 10, 2020
We have seen concern in Canberra about the intent of the Israeli government to extend sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, in accordance with the current US peace plan.
It’s a difficult matter to comment on, given the fact that, as of this writing, it remains unclear what changes are in the offing, where or when they would take effect or even whether any changes will take place at all.
What is clear is that nothing being considered would actually constitute “annexation”, as normally understood in international law, because annexation involves taking the territory of another sovereign state.
The West Bank is not currently the sovereign territory of any state — Jordan has renounced its claim, and no Palestinian state has ever yet existed — so this is disputed land to which Israel has valid legal claims going back to the San Remo convention of 1920 and the League of Nations mandate for Palestine, as well as historical claims going back literally millennia.
In any event, what everyone should be able to agree on is that if such a move does not bring the Israelis and the Palestinians closer to peace, then it’s not helpful.
Furthermore, negotiating a two-state outcome appears to still remain the best viable path to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and any moves should reflect that.
That’s why it’s important to acknowledge that the same US plan that would give the green light for Israel to extend its sovereignty over some areas — an intangible change that would be hard to see on the ground — would simultaneously give the Palestinians unprecedented and very tangible concessions to bring that long-sought two-state outcome closer than ever.
These dividends for the Palestinians include a four-year freeze on Israeli settlement activity on more than 70 per cent of the West Bank, with the express intention of creating an opportunity for the Palestinians to establish an independent state on that area, subject to sensible conditions.
Moreover, according to the US plan, the Palestinians would receive massive investment and economic opportunity to help ensure the success of that state.
Area A, the part of the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority’s complete administrative and security control, would greatly expand under the US plan, and the Palestinians would be free to set up a capital in parts of East Jerusalem under their control, if they desire.
Under the plan, the Palestinians would also receive land from inside of Israel itself, along Israel’s border with Egypt.
It may come as a surprise to many in Australia to learn that some Israeli settlers in the West Bank oppose the sovereignty plan because it would isolate some settlements, potentially making them unviable.
Others, and certainly not only settlers, worry about the prospect of a failed Palestinian state on Israel’s doorstep.
It’s an understandable concern for many Israelis, having been traumatised by the eventual consequences of the 2005 Disengagement Plan that saw Israel withdraw entirely from Gaza only to see it eventually fall into the hands of Hamas and become a perennial rocket threat to one-third of the country.
A failed Palestinian state in the West Bank, they warn, would put all of Israel in the crosshairs and make today’s Gaza threat seem trivial in comparison. There are strong arguments against any extension of sovereignty at this time as well.
Many Israelis are worried about the risk of violence in the West Bank and Gaza, and how such moves might affect Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan. Moderate Sunni Arab states like the United Arab Emirates have warned that any changes in the status of the West Bank would make normalisation with Israel impossible.
Others have argued that the controversy is creating a distraction from the Iranian nuclear threat, and the strain it could put on relations with the EU, among others.
Nevertheless, despite the concerns, most Israelis do support the US plan as a basis for negotiations for a two-state outcome with their Palestinian neighbours.
The US plan’s proponents have called it a way to “break the logjam” in the moribund peace process.
The context for the initiative is the fact that the Palestinian leadership has refused to negotiate directly with Israel for more than a decade, and has rejected even indirect negotiations for a two-state outcome since 2014.
Moreover, this refusal to even negotiate comes after repeatedly rejecting reasonable statehood proposals from Israel in 2000, 2001, and 2008.
Palestinian Authority PM Mohammed Shtayyeh’s recent proposal to the Middle East Quartet for a renewal of direct negotiations with Israel for the first time since 2008 shows that the US efforts to jump-start talks may yet bear fruit.
Given the longstanding impasse in the peace process — driven in no small part by the simple Palestinian refusal to accept the legitimacy and permanence of Israel’s very existence — knowledgeable and realistic supporters of an eventual two-state outcome should be strongly urging the Palestinian leadership to use the opportunity presented by the US peace plan to return to serious negotiations.