Did Trump Warn Israel Against Annexation? – OpEd

Avigdor Lieberman told a meeting of the Knesset foreign affairs committee that the Trump administration “directly” warned Israel that if it annexed the West Bank this would cause “an immediate crisis” in U.S.-Israel relations.  Lieberman’s remarks were a response to a Likud MK who called for immediate annexation of the Occupied Territory.

I have been asking DC-based reporters to query the White House or State Department about this claim.  Frankly, I don’t believe it.  Given in how much disarray the Trump administration faces on all fronts, I very much doubt anyone has the vision or interest to make a pronouncement on such a subject.  Why would Trump even care at this point about annexation?  It isn’t yet on the table in a serious legislative way in Israel.

Another reason it’s unlikely Trump levelled this warning is that it would mark a radical departure from his previous laissez-faire approach to Israel’s policy toward the West Bank and Palestinians.   In fact, this AP story calls the supposed Trump directive a “major backpedaling.”

Haaretz weighed in on this issue with a report based on an interview with an unnamed “senior U.S. official” who refused to deny the thrust of Lieberman’s claim:

The American official didn’t deny Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s remarks …and stressed that the Trump administration is aware of the Israeli official’s statements. “We are not going to speak publicly about the details of private communications between governments,” the official said.

In light of this, it’s quite possible that Bibi asked Trump to do him a favor and save him from his worst enemies, those within his own coalition.  And Trump was only too willing to oblige.  The two had a phone conversation today, but the White House offered only the vaguest of references to the content of what was discussed. Trump’s call to Bibi apparently interrupted the fourth police interrogation of the prime minister on corruption charges.

My strong hunch is that this is yet another political bluff by Bibi and Lieberman to head off a move by the more extreme members of the governing coalition, especially Naftali Bennett, to promote annexation.  It is one of the latter’s most important priorities.  As we come closer to end of Bibi’s career, there is a major scrambling on the far right for the mantle of leadership.  Bennett sees annexation as a winning formula to attrack far-right nationalist votes.  The fact that a Likud MK within Bibi’s own Party was echoing Bennett in advocating the policy must’ve alarmed the PM.  He feared increasing defections on his right-flank.  So he created a fictional warning from the U.S.

It reminds me of a fight between siblings in which each side is at loggerheads and no one can win.  So one sibling says to the other: “Daddy says I’m right.  He said if you don’t do it my way he’s going to punish us both.”  That appeal to a higher authority is what seems to have happened here.  Netanyahu and Lieberman know that they cannot head off such domestic annexationist pressure themselves.  So they invoke the only external authority who carries more weight than they do: Donald Trump.

A second element of this story is important as well.  The MK who advocated annexation, Miki Zohar, made clear that his proposal would not offer annexed Palestinians full citizenship:

“The two state solution is dead; what is left is a one-state solution with the Arabs here not as full citizens,” he said, “because full citizenship will let them to vote for the Knesset. They will get all the rights like every citizen except voting for the Knesset.”

It would deny them the right to vote in national elections and restrict voting to local (municipal) elections.  Even this limited right would be denied Palestinians if they refused military service.  Given that they would not be equal citizens, it seems unlikely they would serve in the army.  He admits as much here:

Zohar said that he proposed allowing full citizenship for those who fulfilled certain criteria to prove their loyalty to the state, such as joining the army. “I promise you: they (the Palestinians) won’t (want to) serve in the army, they will (prefer to) give up the option to vote. They won’t vote in the Knesset. They would prefer not voting and not contributing to this country, believe me,” he said.

The confusion of the annexationists is evident in this statement by Zohar:

“The Palestinians will have to choose if they want to be citizens with equal rights or not,” said Zohar. “They will be able to vote and be elected in their city under administrative autonomy and under Israeli sovereignty and with complete security control.”

Out of one side of his mouth he concedes “Arabs” would not be “full citizens.”  Out of the other he says they could have “equal rights.”  Clearly, those rights would not be “equal.”  And even these limited rights would be denied them if they refused military service.  This is a typically schizoid approach to the Palestinian issue.

Regarding the issue of military service, there is a contradiction in the manner in which it is applied to Jews and Palestinians.  If a Jew does not serve he or she does not lose any rights.  He or she may lose certain job benefits offered to military veterans.  But they lose no citizenship rights.

Therefore, placing this burden on Palestinians would be racist and undemocratic.  No democratic nation in the world places such restrictions on indigenous inhabitants.  Nations like Burma and African countries beset by genocide and ethnic strife have done this.  But Israel is loathe to be compared with such “backward” societies.  If they seriously contemplate this, they should be fully prepared for the comparison.

Finally, annexation would create a de facto single state.  It’s clear that not just the Israeli extreme right has problems defining the terms of such a state.  The left, including the Palestinian left has a different set of problems with it.  Most Israeli Palestinian parties reject one state.  Curiously, they remain wedded to the liberal Zionist two-state construction:

“One state at this moment means apartheid,” Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List of Arab parties in parliament, told foreign reporters Monday. “I think there needs to be great pressure for a Palestinian state to be established on the 1967 borders.”

The Palestinian Israeli and Israeli Zionist left rejects one state, even though there is no conceivable scenario left under which two-states could be realized.  Odeh’s call for “greater pressure to create a Palestinian state” is a lone cry in the wilderness.  It’s the equivalent of the tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it.  It’s been sitting on the forest floor so long it’s a rotting log.

This renders the left irrelevant politically.  It is one of the reasons Israeli Jewish voters reject Labor and other parties supporting two states.  No voter wants to support a party whose platform is unrealistic and unrealizable.  Until the liberal Zionists and Palestinian left abandon two states, they will be fighting a losing battle and always remain an ineffectual minority.

It would be far better to call the right’s bluff.  Force the PA to dismantle itself.  Dare Israel to annex the Territories.  Then, after it does, if the far-right denies Palestinians full rights, let’s have the fight on the international stage for the all the world to see.  Then comparisons to apartheid South Africa will be indisputable.  The world will be forced to take notice and take action.  Not immediately, for sure.  But over time, pressure will build and Israel will be forced to yield.  That, as of now, appears to only viable path to real justice.

A bit of context is in order.  Unlike some on the left including anti-Zionists, I am not someone who has always supported a one-state solution.  I would rather, if circumstances permitted, let the parties negotiate their own choice for governance.  But that has long seemed impossible and unreasonable.  My own abandonment of a two-state solution was forced on me by Israeli rejectionism.

This article was published at Tikun Olam

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

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