Troubling turn of events
The annexation plans of a newly formed Israeli unity government threaten to destabilise the Middle East region at a time when the fight against COVID-19 must be paramount
The unprecedented formation of a unity government in Israel by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud party and his rival Benny Gantz of Blue and White has put a question mark on the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The formation of the government agreed under a deal reached between Netanyahu and Gantz last month not only broke a political impasse which had resulted in three elections in less than a year but also allowed Netanyahu to continue in office as he faces corruption charges. The government, which also includes the most right-wing elements in Israeli politics, has for the first time committed itself to the ideology, agenda and desires of the extreme right-wing promoting unilateral annexation of Palestinian territories and settlements.
Observers say that the annexation of parts of the West Bank no longer seems to rhetoric but may become a reality sooner than later, perhaps even by the end of the summer. Any move in that direction by Israel would not only damage efforts to restart the peace negotiations with Palestinians but would also be contrary to international law.
The Government will be defined as a national emergency government for a period of six months and no legislation unrelated to the battle against the Coronavirus will be brought in parliament "without consent," according to a joint statement issued by the Likud and the Blue and White after reaching the deal in the third week of last month.
One exception, however, is Israel's intention — in accordance with the US President Trump's 'Middle East Peace Plan' — to annex the Jordan Valley and illegal Jewish settlements and other territories in occupied West Bank. Naturally, this action would defy international law as it would be against the two-nation proposal.
The agreement delays consideration of annexation until July 1. It declares that annexation must be done in a way that safeguards Israel's interests, "including the needs for preserving regional stability, protecting existing peace agreements and aspiring for future ones."
As far as President Trump's proposal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concerned, Netanyahu, in a bid to win the support of pro-settlement voters has pledged to swiftly and unilaterally annex Jordan valley and large swaths of the occupied West bank. The agreement with Gantz has now solidified that position with July 1 slated as the date legislation proposing annexations will advance.
For the settlement movement and their leaders in the Government, time is of the essence as they would like to see through legislation with regard to annexation before the US Presidential election in November, especially as Trump's approval ratings are on the decline in the wake of his mishandling of the pandemic.
If this trend continues, there is all likelihood of Democrat Presidential contender Joe Biden winning the US election and assuming charge of the administration in January next year. His administration may take a dim view of the annexation.
The international community has an added responsibility to ensure that Israel does not succeed in its plan to annex the Palestinian territories as envisaged in the much-touted 'Middle East Peace Plan'.
Taking note of the political development in Israel and its possible negative fall out on the Middle East peace process, the UK and the EU joined the UN in speaking against Israeli annexation of the occupied West Bank.
"Annexation of parts of the West Bank would constitute a serious violation of international law, deal a devastating blow to the two-state solution, close the door to a renewal of negotiations and threaten efforts to advance regional peace," UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov said during a video briefing of the UN Security Council recently.
The EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in a letter to the Security Council ahead of the meeting said "the European Union's position on the `status of the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 remains unchanged…The EU does not recognise Israeli sovereignty over the occupied West Bank."
James Roscoe, the acting UK Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, spoke against the Israeli government move towards further annexation particularly at a time when the world was struggling with the Coronavirus crisis. "During this fragile period, we call on both parties to avoid any provocative action which might undermine the cooperation that is so critical. This includes incitement, settlement activity, demolitions and settler violence," he told the council.
He said the UK was "deeply concerned by reports that the new Israeli government coalition has reached an agreement which paves the way for annexation of parts of the West Bank",
Making his country's position clear on the issue, he said: "Any unilateral moves towards the annexation of parts of the West Bank by Israel would be damaging to efforts to restart peace negotiations and would be contrary to international law."
The signatories, that also include diplomats and prominent campaigners against antisemitism in the Labour party such as Margaret Hodge, point out that the UK did not hesitate to sanction Russia after the annexation of Crimea, claiming any move in the West Bank would warrant a similar response.
Israel's move would also have serious implications in the region. Egypt and especially Jordan may suspend their peace agreements with the Jewish state if settlements and the Jordan Valley are annexed. Any retaliatory action by Jordan and Egypt may prompt the Gulf States that have been cosying up with Israel to reassess those budding relations.
Throughout the stalemate in which elections were held in April and September 2019 and last month, Israel has been run by a caretaker government headed by Netanyahu, who is facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The agreement forestalls what had appeared to be an inevitable fourth election and offers a deeply divided Israel a chance to effectively battle the Coronavirus pandemic. Israel has recorded more than 15,000 confirmed cases and over 200 deaths so far.
Under the deal that came after weeks of hard bargaining, Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving Prime Minister, managed to extend his reign for another 18 months, despite being indicted in bribery and corruption charges, cementing his reputation as a political magician who once again has managed to cling to power in spite of adverse circumstances.
Gantz, former army chief and head of the centre-right Blue and White Alliance, will be Deputy Prime Minister and get a turn as Prime Minister halfway through their three-year term, in October 2021, switching roles with Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party.
The deal has helped Netanyahu in buying time to formulate his strategy to handle his prosecution or at least prevent it from driving him from power. His trial on bribery, corruption and breach of trust charges is set to begin May 24. He denies all the charges.
Already there had been protests in Israel last week against the unity government deal that leaves Netanyahu in power as he prepares to go on trial for corruption charges. The protesters oppose having Netanyahu as prime minister as they feel he would influence over the appointment of judges and legal officials in handling the corruption charges against him.
Palestinians have condemned the alliance as a new Israeli 'annexation government' saying the agreement would wreck hopes of peace. "The formation of an Israeli annexation government means ending the two-state solution and the dismantling of the rights of the people of Palestine," Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh tweeted. Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestine Liberation Organisation official said "very serious challenging days" are expected, given Trump's close relationship with Netanyahu. "This is extremely dangerous not just for Palestinians, for Israel, for the region, but for the world," she said.
The writer is a former Editor of PTI and served as West Asia correspondent for PTI. Views expressed are strictly personal