Warnings from the Arab world against the Israeli government’s plan to annex territories in the West Bank have been mounting in recent weeks. Various Arab leaders conveyed, in public and in private, messages that annexation will radicalize Palestinians, damage the peace process, prevent normalization of Israel-Arab ties, jeopardize regional stability, could ignite a religious war, and will be considered a crime.
Yet, a headline in the pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom stated, on June 24, that “Arab states quietly back Israeli annexation”, and that “senior Arab officials say they won’t risk relations with Trump and Israel for the sake of the Palestinian cause.” So, as July 1st was approaching – the date after which Netanyahu can, according to the coalition agreement, advance annexation – Israelis found themselves confused.
Yes, annexation is expected to damage Israel’s relations with the Arab world, among the other negative domestic, regional and international consequences it will have for Israel. But, the extent of this damage is yet unknown, and is dependent on the scope of annexation eventually carried out, the nature of Palestinian response, and Arab leaders’ capacity and willingness to act.
Four major trends, which evolved in recent years, are key to understanding current Israeli-Arab dynamics around annexation: Israel’s warming ties with key Arab states, growing tensions between Israel and Jordan, Netanyahu’s efforts to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the mainstreaming of the annexation idea in Israel.
Israel’s warming ties with key Arab states – The stagnation in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process continued to serve as a “glass ceiling” that limits Israel’s relations with the Arab world. However, Israel did manage in recent years to improve its ties with Egypt and Gulf states, based on joint interests – mostly security, but also economic and geopolitical. Relations are still conducted mostly behind the scenes, but are gradually becoming more visible to the public eye – via meetings between leaders and ministers, Israeli participation in international events hosted by Arab states, professional cooperation, and positive engagement on social media.
Growing tensions between Israel and Jordan – Since the summer of 2017, following tensions around the al-Aqsa Mosque and the shooting incident at the Israeli Embassy in Amman, Israel-Jordan relations took a downward turn. King Abdullah lost trust in Netanyahu and refused to engage with him, Jordan accused Israel of not living up to its commitments regarding joint projects, Jordan refused to renew the lease to Israel of lands in Tzofar and Naharayim, and public sentiments in Jordan towards Israel became more negative. The countries did, however, maintain security coordination, sign an agreement on natural gas, and cooperate in the fields of water and trade.
Netanyahu’s efforts to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state – Netanyahu backed off from his 2009 declared support for the two-state solution. He refrained from negotiating with Palestinian President Abbas, maintained the West Bank-Gaza Strip split, utilized intra-European divides to neutralize the EU from playing a role, developed ties with Arab world to bypass the Palestinian issue rather than to advance conflict resolution, worked in close coordination with the Trump administration, made efforts to take the Palestinian issue off the Israeli and international agenda, and delegitimized opposing actors in Israel and abroad.
The mainstreaming of the annexation idea in Israel – Annexation was not part of the popular Israeli discourse until recent years. In 2017-18, Members of Knesset from Likud tried to promote legislation regarding an annexation of Ma’ale Adumim, near Jerusalem, but eventually did not get a green light to move it forward. In the lead-up to the September 2019 Israeli general elections, Netanyahu made a public commitment to annex the Jordan Valley and the settlements, which he stepped up in the following months – around the publication of the Trump plan and upon establishing his new coalition. Annexation became a regular feature in the Israeli public debate, although most of the public does not see it a priority and does not support it.
Taking these trends into account, the Arab world is speaking in one voice against annexation, both through statements by specific countries and through collective messages from the Arab League. Israel is being advised by its neighbors – as well as by other international actors – not to annex, but Arab countries are still refraining from spelling out concrete steps they will take the day after annexation takes place. Moreover, there are differences in the intensity of the Arab warnings and in their style, as exemplified by the responses of Jordan and the UAE – the most vocal Arab states on the annexation issue to date.
Jordan is the Arab state which is likely to be impacted the most by an Israeli annexation. It is constantly delivering harsh warnings about negative consequences of annexation – whether it is small or large in scope. Jordan views any sort of annexation as unacceptable, as a violation of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, and as a danger to its domestic stability. However, Jordan’s reliance on US aid, especially at times of regional turmoil and financial crisis, is likely to limit its actual response to an Israeli annexation, especially if it does not eventually include the Jordan Valley. Therefore, Jordan is invested in trying to prevent annexation, by lobbying international actors, first and foremost in the US, to put pressure on Israel.
The UAE is the Arab state that advanced its ties with Israel the most in recent years – through visits, events participation, humanitarian cooperation, social media engagement, security coordination, and more. It is conveying its opposition to Israeli annexation in a different manner than Jordan. The UAE chose to speak directly to the Israeli public and to deliver a message that it is “either annexation or normalization”. The UAE ambassador to the US published an article in Hebrew in the major Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, which was followed up with tweets and videos in Hebrew on official Emirati social media pages. This type of warning was seen by some in Israel as a normalization step of its own – utilizing the necessity to oppose annexation, to take public engagement with Israel to new heights.
Other Arab states are keeping a lower public profile on annexation, although their messaging against such a step is clear. In general, even though each Arab state may respond to annexation in a different manner – while probably issuing a joint condemnation via the Arab League – annexation is likely to damage Israel’s relations in the Middle East. The Palestinian issue is still a central factor in shaping Israel-Arab relations, and when Israel makes a move that contradicts basic principles of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Arab world will have to react. And, if Palestinians respond to annexation with violence, Arab leaders will be obliged to respond in a harsher manner than what they may have originally planned.
Annexation will jeopardize what Israel managed to achieve in recent years in its ties with the Arab world and is expected to limit further progress. Even if it will not lead to a total reversal of Israel-Arab relations, annexation will cause Israel to miss the historic opportunity that the current regional landscape provides it with – an opportunity to reshape Israel’s relations in the Middle East, to enhance its acceptance in the region, and to promote the two-state solution with a moderate Palestinian leadership. Instead of annexing territories, Israel should be negotiating peace.