After three stalemate elections in a year, Israel finally has a government. Incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Benny Gantz signed a pact on Monday which will see them take turns at being premier. It’s nice when people share.
The most immediate concerns for Israelis are how the new administration will handle the coronavirus outbreak and how much more this latest reshuffle will end up costing them. For the rest of the world, what matters most is paragraph 29 of Netanyahu and Gantz’s coalition agreement.
Paragraph 29 says Netanyahu can bring forward a bill to apply sovereignty to Israeli settlements in the West Bank (which make up 30 per cent of the Judea and Samaria regions) as early as July 1. Although Gantz personally opposes this approach, and would prefer to make yet another attempt to coax the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, he will not stand in the way of the bill. Provided Netanyahu can find the votes, we could be just weeks away from Israel formally asserting itself as the de jure sovereign over the West Bank settlements.
This will of course be met with resistance. Yousel al-Hasaineh has already accused Netanyahu and Gantz of ‘extremism’ and undermining the peace process. Yousel al-Hasaineh is the spokesman for Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Alongside PIJ, expect cold fury from the likes of the UN, the EU, CNN and the BBC – proving conclusively that nothing good has ever come from an acronym. Terms like ‘annexation’, ‘colonisation’ and ‘bantustans’ will almost certainly be thrown around. But a sovereignty bill, if it passes into law, will simply begin the process of implementing the Trump Peace Plan. That plan assigns 30 per cent of Judea and Samaria to Israel and the other 70 per cent to a demilitarised Palestinian state. The United States intends to recognise this Israeli sovereignty provided Jerusalem agrees to map out a Palestinian state with its opposite numbers in Ramallah.
It now falls to the Palestinians to decide whether this is where the Israeli settlement enterprise ends or whether it continues advocating for complete sovereignty. Judea and Samaria cannot continue to be a ‘Wild East’, with occasional patches of law-based social order amid vast swathes of territory ungoverned and ungovernable by a Palestinian Authority that barely exists anymore. The Palestinians and their forerunner representatives have refused every offer of statehood made to them. If they refuse this one, they may not get another.
One of the reasons for Palestinian rejectionism is that such behaviour is rewarded by the international community. Israel makes concessions, the Palestinians spurn the concessions, the world demands Israel make more, Israel makes more, the Palestinians again rebuff them, and the world shakes its collective head at those hard-line Israelis who just refuse to give any ground. Encouraging Palestinian intransigence keeps them stateless and their national fate in the hands of others. Indulging their rejectionism, their payments to terrorists who kill Israelis, and their kindergarten plays where children dress up as suicide bombers makes it all the harder to achieve a Palestinian state.
Under Labour and Tory governments, the UK has tended to talk pro-Israel but act with far more equivocation. It’s not easy for ministers to take bold decisions when they have civil servants assuring them the world will cave in if they deviate from the policies favoured by the civil service, however moribund and debunked they may be. Events on the ground have outstripped the intellectual and ideological sclerosis of the Foreign Office though and the UK is now woefully unprepared. Come July 1, Britain will view Israel’s application of its laws to its communities in Judea and Samaria as no different to Russia’s invasions and annexation of the Crimea. That is an unsustainable situation, not least when it involves a friendly nation that furnishes us with vital intelligence on national security threats.
The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary may be otherwise disposed at the minute but essential foreign policy instruments shouldn’t be held back in a crisis, no more than international aid allocations or contributions to international bodies. The UK is capable of walking and chewing gum at a two-metre distance. In preparation for likely changes to Israel’s map, the UK should recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, commit to moving the UK’s embassy there once the Covid-19 pandemic has subsided, and affirm, as the US has, that civilian settlements are not ‘per se inconsistent with international law’.
This would form the basis for any subsequent recognition of sovereignty in Judea and Samaria. In an ideal world, Israel would restrict itself to the Jordan Valley and the major settlement blocs – areas which most accept would become part of Israel in any two-state solution. This would leave more territory and more flexibility for the establishment of a Palestinian state. But the Palestinians have shown endless bad faith and it is understandable that Israel would want to put its citizens on a sound legal footing.
The sovereignty bill Netanyahu is likely to bring forward will leave the Palestinians with the vast majority of Judea and Samaria. Along with Gaza, this gives them substantial territory on which to found their state. Any country that considers itself a friend to the Palestinians should beg them to take the deal and end the conflict. Britain should right a historical wrong by affirming a promise it made a century ago and never again should it treat an ally like an ‘illegal occupier’ in their own land.