That Israel is contemplating annexing significant parts of the West Bank says more about Israel these days than about the future of the land itself.
Two points merit attention.
First, there is an increasing imbalance in Israeli decision making between the expedient and the strategic. The expedient is satisfying different groups in the Israeli right by annexing these lands. The strategic is that this comes at the expense of Israeli security.
How? Most serious Israeli thinkers, especially in the military, deem Iranian expansionism and the power of its regional allies the main challenge confronting Israel in the short to medium term. They also assess that one of the main assets Israel has in that confrontation is the cooperation Israel has with countries in the geographic space separating it from Iran – particularly Jordan and the Gulf states. Here, security cooperation is paramount. But the annexation will weaken that cooperation.
Why? Because these Arab states, and especially Jordan, will correctly see the annexation as ignoring their interests and public standings. For Jordan, it would show disregard to the Hashemite decades-long assuming of responsibility over parts of the West Bank. Plus, with a very significant proportion of the residents of Jordan of Palestinian origin, the anger that the annexation will generate will stir emotions in the Jordanian street.
There is an argument that says that Jordan will issue strong rhetoric and might make a symbolic diplomatic move, but that it will practically accept the annexation.
Wrong. This argument rests on the assumption that Jordan has no qualms about having Israeli units on different parts of the West Bank. Perhaps, but the argument fails to distinguish between the fact that Jordan indeed has devised an excellent way of managing the legacy of the 1967 war, versus the Jordanian refusal to accept further territorial losses, even if those territories are being negotiated by the Palestinian Authority. If the annexation took place, Jordan would have no option but to take a serious move, likely reducing security cooperation with Israel.
Second, the annexation entails a miscalculation in Israeli assessment of the US support for this move. The Trump Administration is increasingly electorally reliant on groups at the far right of political Christianity in the US, as well as on the financial support of a small set of major donors with extreme views regarding the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
However, this support does not extend to the centre of the Republican party, let alone to the vast majority of the Democratic base. So, even if President Trump was re-elected, his calculus for the political cost versus benefits of the annexation would change in December 2020, particularly since the annexation will almost certainly lead to various forms of opposition to it. Of course in the case of a Democratic win in the presidential election, the annexation will face acute problems in the White House as well as in Congress (where a Democratic majority is very much on the cards).
The annexation is also telling about a subtle but important change within the Israeli body politic. This important decision, with serious consequences on Israel’s relationships with its prime ally (the US), one of the most important countries it has achieved peace with (Jordan), and new but important friends (in the Gulf), is being taken by a government that was formed after three elections in one year, a government with hardly any harmony between its constituents, and with a government whose head is the first Israeli sitting prime minister to face a criminal investigation. And there hardly seems any link between the political decision making and the public dialogue.
There are people in the Israeli government who feel a temptation. It is the first time that PM Netanyahu has a Republican counterpart at the White House, and one who sees major electoral value in being supportive of the Israeli right. But succumbing to temptations is usually a mistake. In this case, it is also a strategic miscalculation.