The modern State of Israel was born in the aftermath of World War II, alongside what is now known as the rules-based international order — a liberal global system created in large part by the United States and defined by a commitment from numerous countries to respect certain guidelines governing political and military conduct.
Today, both Israel and the rules-based order face serious, existential threats — threats that have been significantly exacerbated by the actions of the Trump administration.
This dual peril is embodied in much of the current American administration’s Israel program, most recently Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement that reversed a longstanding U.S. position that Israeli settlements are inconsistent with international law.
While the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government will both eventually come to an end, the U.S.-Israel relationship may be irrevocably harmed in the interim.
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The administration’s new stance on settlements and its greenlighting of West Bank annexation fly in the face of one of the central tenets of the postwar system, namely the concept of territorial integrity and the idea that land cannot be unilaterally acquired through the force of arms. This doctrine has informed American policy under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and it has guided the American response to matters far beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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Notably, the liberal international order has always been difficult for Israelis. From day one, it established an expectation that Israel will play by the rules in a region where others routinely fail to respect them.
Yet even according to Israel’s challenging position, there is no case to be made that unilateral annexation serves the Jewish state’s interests. To the contrary, annexation of the West Bank will endanger Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.
When Trump legitimizes settlements and annexation, he is ostensibly sacrificing universal principles upon the altar of Israel’s security. But far from leaving Israel better off, Trump’s approach is actually creating a reality that is less safe for Israel.
Some members of the Knesset are now focused on seizing the “historic opportunity” presented by the Trump administration’s settlements policy and are moving to formally absorb the Jordan Valley. This is an easy place for annexation to begin: Israelis generally view the Jordan Valley as a source of security rather than political or religious fulfillment.
Nonetheless, annexing even one inch of West Bank land anywhere in the occupied territories will fundamentally change the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic. It will pose a serious risk to vital security cooperation by making it abundantly clear to the Palestinian Authority that its raison d’etre of achieving a two-state solution is, and always has been, a farce.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers a statement on the Trump administration’s position on Israeli settlements at the State Department in Washington, U.S., November 18, 2019Andrew Harnik,AP
Popular violence may become difficult for the PA to contain; already, a Day of Rage planned in response to Pompeo’s announcement left dozens of Palestinians injured in clashes with Israeli forces. While such a change in U.S. policy could be revoked by a future administration, it will be nearly impossible to recover the political capital that will be lost in the interim.
Moreover, annexation is unlikely to stop at the Jordan Valley. While initial land grabs may be justified on pragmatic terms, Jordan Valley annexation will only whet the appetite of more extreme players in the Knesset.
For over 50 years, West Bank annexation has remained on the fringes of Israeli political discourse. However, due to the lethal combination of Trump administration’s repudiation of the American-backed liberal order, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal troubles, annexation has moved into the political mainstream in Israel, even though only a minority of Israelis support full annexation.