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Israel's annexation plans are headache for Arab states

Tom Allinson | Lewis Sanders IV
June 29, 2020

From Riyadh to Amman, economic links and geopolitical interests have brought Arab states closer to normalizing relations with Israel. But plans to annex parts of the West Bank could scupper that prospect.

Israeli soldiers aiming their weapons at Palestinian protesters in Jordan Valley
Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot/Xinhua/A. Nobani

On July 1, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to take a significant step toward annexing up to 30% of the occupied Palestinian West Bank, covering Israeli settlements and the strategic area of the fertile Jordan Valley.

The move, spurred by US President Donald Trump's peace plan, has been condemned across the globe, including by the Palestinians' Arab allies. The Arab League last week warned it could trigger a "religious war in and beyond our region."

In May, Jordan's King Abdullah II told German news magazine Der Spiegel that an Israeli annexation would lead to "massive conflict" with his country and the suspension of their peace treaty was among "all options" being considered.

An unprecedented op-ed from the United Arab Emirates' ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth earlier this month warned that annexation would "upend" Gulf states' growing normalization with Israel. Last week's announcement of UAE cooperation with Israel in combating the coronavirus was seemingly dangled as an example of what may be at risk.

Limiting annexation

Such interventions have had an impact largely because Israel values those relationships more than many of their others, said Jake Walles, a former US consul general in Jerusalem.

"The current reporting out of Israel is ... to go for a more limited annexation rather than a full annexation of 30%," Walles said. "I think the Arab reaction has played a role in moving this to a more limited step than what was originally intended."

A fenced off area between the West Bank and the Jordan Valley
Israel's plans to annex up to 30% of the Jordan Valley have put Arab states in a predicamentImage: DW/T. Krämer

If Israel steps back from annexing the Jordan Valley but moves ahead with taking settlements closer to the so-called 1967 border [the internationally recognized border between the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel — the ed.], Jordan could respond by freezing security and diplomatic contacts or even suspending a gas deal between the two countries, Walles said.

Read more: The West Bank and the Jordan Valley explained

But previous condemnations of such US and Israeli moves have resulted in little concrete action from the Palestinians' traditional Arab allies as a result of growing economic links with Israel and shared geopolitical interests.

Shifting priorities

One sign of these shifting priorities is Saudi Arabia and the UAE's continued air, sea and land blockade of Qatar, which they accused of supporting terrorism through links to Iran, long considered Israel's preeminent rival in the region. Saudi Arabia began allowing limited Israel-bound flights over its territory in 2018.

Trade between Israel and the Gulf states is now estimated at $1 billion (€890 million) a year, US analyst Aaron David Miller outlined recently in a piece for US news outlet Politico. "Much more on the intelligence and security side is reportedly happening below the waterline," Miller wrote.

Indeed, the UAE's al-Otaiba joined ambassadors from Oman and Bahrain in giving their countries' implicit imprimatur to Trump's plan when they attended its unveiling in January. But he and other Emirati and Gulf officials have apparently balked at the speed of Israel's unilateral push without further negotiations.

'Reaping what they have sown'

For some experts, the Gulf states' creeping normalization with Israel may have emboldened those pushing for annexation at the Palestinians' expense.

A decade of growing ties has boosted the Israeli right-wing domestically by proving that it doesn't have to make concessions to the Palestinians to gain recognition and acceptance from its neighbors, according to Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Israeli-Palestinian Forum for Regional Thinking.

"Arab Gulf regimes are now reaping what they have sown," Tsurkov wrote last month for the Middle East Institute. "Their protestation against the annexation plan rings hollow after they spent years normalizing relations with the Israeli government while it entrenched its abusive military rule over the Palestinians."

Bleak prospects

How countries like Jordan and the Gulf States may yet act if even a limited annexation goes ahead will nonetheless have an impact.

Their reactions could pressure the Palestinian Authority to fully suspend security cooperation with Israel and disband, or encourage Hamas in the Gaza Strip to go on the offensive — moves that could force Israel's hand in eventually re-occupying Gaza or moving toward full control of the West Bank.

If that happens, "no other diplomatic effort is likely to resurrect prospects for a two-state deal anytime soon," three retired Israeli military chiefs, Ami Ayalon, Tamir Pardo and Gadi Shamni, warned in a piece published by the US news magazine Foreign Policy.

Read moreOpinion: Trump's Middle East 'peace plan' delivers neither

"Rescuing Israel from the impossible dilemma of giving up its Jewish identity by granting annexed Palestinians equal rights or forfeiting its democracy by depriving them of those rights may turn out to be a mission impossible," they wrote.

Such moves could also spill over onto Jordanian King Abdullah's doorstep, with possibly even more Palestinian refugees crossing the border, compounding tough choices domestically.

"He's going to face a lot of pressure from his population to do something and be as tough as possible," Walles said. "On the other side he's got a relationship with Washington that he's got to worry about. Jordan receives a lot of assistance from the US, both economic and military."

"This could be the most consequential decision [King Abdullah] is going to make."

Jericho's Palestinians in limbo

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