By Arab News
By Chris Doyle*
When you head north from the ancient oasis town of Jericho and leave this sleepy Palestinian Authority-controlled enclave, you can experience the full effect of decades of Israeli occupation, if you open your eyes.
You leave behind the large red signs warning Israeli citizens that it is illegal for them to enter such Palestinian areas, as it is dangerous to their lives. You drive down what is, in effect, an Israeli highway that bypasses Jericho. To the left and right are huge plantations, largely of date palms and greenhouses. There have been settlements built up here ever since the 1970s. The settler populationis not high at about 11,000, but their use or theft of the land and vital water supplies is massive. Settlement jurisdiction operates over 86 percent of the Jordan Valley, according to the UN. What is not taken up by settlements is largely used as military zones (56 percent), closed off to Palestinians or nature reserves (20 percent), where grazing is forbidden.
What you do not see, off the road, are the indigenous Palestinian Bedouin and farmers. In theory, the Bedouin should roam with their herds of sheep and goats, as they have done for decades or even centuries. Increasingly they cannot as the settlement territory hems them in. The natural springs have dried up because Israeli settlers have diverted the water for their own agricultural use. They live in shacks but any sign of permanent construction risks being demolished by the Israeli army. Many communities are regularly displaced for Israeli army live fire exercises. If Israel annexes the area, the 65,000 Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley will just be deemed a nuisance unworthy of being granted Israeli citizenship or true equality.
Perhaps nowhere else in the occupied West Bank do you find such a massive gap between the haves (the settlers) and the have-nots (Palestinians). Yet the frightening inequality is not the full story, nor does it tell us why the Israeli prime minister is hell-bent on annexing this area, which makes up about a third of the West Bank.
Ever since 1967, Israeli leaders, starting with those from the so-called leftist Labor Party, had designs on this area. Just look at the 1967 Allon Plan, which envisaged Israeli control of this area, as well as the Jerusalem envelope. Early settlement building was in keeping with Yigal Allon’s maps.
Some argue that Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement is merely another desperate election ruse. That would be a dangerous assumption.
All the political stars are aligned for this dramatic decision. The Israeli political consensus is for annexation of the Jordan Valley, as well as major settlement areas. More than half the population supports such a move. The so-called centrist Blue and White alliance only had one objection to Netanyahu’s announcement: Its leaders claimed this was their idea (a nonsense as Israeli leaders have been eyeing up annexation for decades).
Netanyahu and others are also looking ahead to Jan. 20, 2021. His fear is that a new American president will be inaugurated on that date. President Donald Trump has ditched any restraint in support for Israeli expansionism, so the next year and a bit will perhaps be the best opportunity to deliver the greater Israel that Netanyahu and his ilk have always dreamed of. He knows Trump will endorse any such move. “I am waiting to do this in maximum coordination with Trump,” he boasted.
The Palestinian leadership has pretty close to zero options. President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated his oft-repeated threat to pull out of all agreements with Israel, but he never seems to carry through with this and, even if he did, Tel Aviv would meet it with a contented shrug of the shoulders.
This leaves the EU. Its reaction is vital. It is the one body that might make a future Israeli prime minister pause for thought. However, if that is going to happen, then it can no longer be a case of tepid expressions of condemnation and deep concern. Israel has soaked up thousands of such protestations over the years. It continued building settlements apace, thumbing its nose at the criticism, seeing it as synthetic outrage.
Annexation is the final step in the Israeli strategy. The EU must therefore deploy all the levers it can to deter this. Back in 2014, Russia occupied Crimea and held a rigged referendum en route to annexing this piece of occupied territory. The EU reaction was swift. Within weeks, it had imposed a raft of sanctions on Russia and key Russian officials.
Could this happen in the case of Israel? In theory, yes. If the EU is prepared to take on a superpower like Russia, why not Israel too? It does not even have to go as far as sanctions. It would have the grounds to suspend or annul the EU-Israel Association Agreement and remove all preferential trade access to the massive EU market for Israeli products and services. It could impose sanctions on Israeli individuals who have sponsored the illegal settlement enterprise.
In practice, the EU is far too divided and lacks the political courage. Major powers, including Britain, view any such annexation as a disaster for any conceivable two-state solution and also for the chances of upholding the rules-based international order. However, the Visegrad countries, especially Hungary and the Czech Republic, would be unlikely to consent and it would require unanimous agreement.
The remaining scenario is some form of concerted action by major EU powers. This is perhaps why it was France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK that last week issued a joint statement bleating about deep concern, rather than the full EU. A bit of backbone will have to emerge to replace the European leadership vacuum — a scenario Netanyahu will correctly judge to be a distant prospect.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech