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Hanging by a thread

With Israel seemingly deferring or delaying its controversial plan for the annexation of the West Bank, the prospect of lasting peace in the region still hangs on precariously

Hanging by a thread
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Has Israel given up the idea of annexing the large parts of occupied Palestinian territory in West Bank? It seems unlikely although it did not go ahead with its move to start the process on July 1 as declared by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in line with US President Donald Trump's Middle-East Plan.

Annexation was one of Netanyahu's key campaign promises in Israel's election earlier this year and was a major factor in securing his victory. It was a large carrot that incentivised his voting base to keep turning out in three inconclusive elections over the course of a year. It has also distracted from his current corruption trial as also from his failure to maintain a grip on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Trump administration's peace plan, unveiled in January, envisions bringing some 30 per cent of the West Bank under permanent Israeli control and gave a green light to Israel to annex that territory. The US plan would establish a disjointed Palestinian state with limited autonomy in carved-up pockets of the remaining land.

This pro-Israel approach under the US plan has alienated Palestinians, who reject both annexation and the broader plans proposed in the so-called deal of the century, and has left them with no say in a decision that could alter the course of their destiny.

Netanyahu would try his best to accomplish the task before the US presidential poll in later this year as it would be difficult for him to enforce the plan if Trump loses the elections.

It would be hard for Netanyahu to forgo the plan because he has made too much of it. He will not be forgiven by many of his supporters should he fail to capitalise on the opportunity with the US blessings.

Furthermore, this is his chance to mark a place in Israel's history books — not as Israel's first Prime Minister to stand trial while in office, but as the leader who secured recognition of the settlements and demolished any chance of a viable Palestinian state.

According to Israeli media, the dithering reflects divisions inside the US administration. Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and the architect of the plan has reportedly been at loggerheads with David Friedman, the US Ambassador to Israel, over the timing and scale of annexation. It is Kushner who is fielding anxious calls from Arab and European leaders about the annexation move.

Israeli Cabinet Minister Ofir Akunis was quoted as saying that the plan has been delayed as officials were still working out the final details with their American counterparts. He expected the annexation to take place later this month.

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who also holds rotating premiership with Netanyahu and had campaigned in the last Israeli elections on a platform that rejected annexation, seems to be at loggerheads with the Prime Minister on the issue. He wants the annexation talks to be deferred until the Coronavirus crisis passes away.

Observers believe that Netanyahu may be in a rush to implement the annexation plan while Trump is in office because if Joe Biden, his democrat rival, comes to power, he may overturn the policy as he is opposed to the annexation plan.

Reports in Israeli media suggest that the plan is not off the table and that Netanyahu may go for two-stage annexation. Israel would quickly annex the larger settlements around Jerusalem to deny the Palestinians their future capital. This would be an effective sequel to Trump's decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem two years ago.

The more remote settlements and the Jordan Valley might follow, possibly only if Trump gets re-elected when he can protect Netanyahu from any backlash.

The delay by Netanyahu in putting the plan in place cast further uncertainty over whether Israel will ultimately follow through on the explosive annexation initiative, which has also drawn fierce international condemnation from some of Israel's closest allies.

The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their state but the future of Jerusalem is considered a final status issue to be decided through negotiation by Israelis and Palestinians.

The UN, the EU and key Arab countries, including Egypt and Jordan who have peace treaties with Israel, have all said the annexation would violate international law and undermine the already diminished prospects of establishing a viable independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Recently a group of former world leaders have urged European leaders to keep pressuring Israel against the annexation of parts of the West Bank. The Elders, founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007, said in letters to the leaders of France, Germany, Britain and the European Union that they should insist to Israel that annexation would have negative political and economic consequences for bilateral and regional relations.

The proposed annexation is not only illegal under international law but would also put more Palestinians at risk of losing their ancestral lands permanently. Many will be deprived of their main source of income in the form of agriculture.

Annexation would also be the final nail in the coffin of the Oslo Accords, a 1993 agreement that formed the basis of future peace negotiations between Palestine and Israel. Over the past two decades, Israel has violated the accords repeatedly, maintaining a military presence throughout the West Bank, expanding illegal settlements, depriving Palestinians their basic rights and continuing its occupation of East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their future capital of their own state.

It is high time that the international community to impress upon Israel to resolve the issue through negotiations with Palestinian. The two sides should find an acceptable "two-state" solution for peaceful coexistence.

The two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, backed by the UN Security Council and the vast majority of the international community, envisions an independent Palestinian state in the entire West Bank territory Israel captured during the 1967 war and Gaza, with an agreed land swap.

The writer is a former Editor of PTI and served as West Asia correspondent for PTI. Views expressed are personal

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