In the run up to the Knesset elections last month Netanyahu caused an uproar- announcing that he would begin annexing West Bank settlements after the election. There was a hidden layer behind this last-minute election ploy to steal right wing votes for the Likud. Netanyahu implied that this annexation would be coordinated with the Trump administration, which would acquiesce to these maneuvers in retaliation for the likely Palestinian rejection of the upcoming “deal of the century”- the hyperbolic title of Trump’s new peace plan.
The response from liberal Zionists, globalists and other 2-State solution enthusiasts was predictable. They decried this annexation move- called it one more nail in the coffin of Oslo, proof positive that Netanyahu and Trump were going to singlehandedly blow up the peace process. But, there is a silver lining in this concept that these peace advocates are missing. In a sense, the notion of punitive annexation could save and revive the peace process, rather than harken its doom.
One way to think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that of opposing forces who, without outside pressure, acquiesce to an equilibrium. Before 1993, an equilibrium of resistance and total occupation reigned. The Occupied Territories were entirely ruled by Israel, the principal Palestinian National movement opposed Israel’s existence, and, partly as a result of the Cold War, much of the world sided with the Palestinians, blocking Israeli overtures for recognition and trade.
After the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Palestinians and the Israelis changed the structure of their relationship. Palestinians were given quasi-self-government over much of the Occupied Territories, Israel got recognition from a longtime foe, easing of its burden in policing the Palestinian people and access to various economic incentives. What forces broke the previous equilibrium and created this new one? The end of the Cold War created a Palestinian need for financial sponsorship and alliance with the United States. The Cold War’s end also allowed Israel to freely pursue fruitful economic relationships with the entire world. So, outside incentive- in this case positive incentive- pressured Israelis and Palestinians to pursue peace.
Now, another equilibrium has been established in the wake of this Oslo peace-process. Palestinians and Israelis aren’t quite at war, but they are also not at peace. Palestinian claims against Israel persist. Israeli occupation and military control of Palestinian land continues. The Oslo process was supposed to end this new equilibrium with the establishment of a Palestinian State. In 1999-2001 several peace summits got close to that goal. The problem was, that the external incentives could not budge either side.
For Israelis then, and now, the benefits of peace with the Palestinians barely seemed worth what they would have to give up. The influx of trade, economic investment and diplomatic recognition post-1993 had already been given. Also there were, and continue to be, grave doubts about whether formal peace with the Palestinians would provide better security for Israel than continued Occupation. For the Palestinians the massive aid on offer to resettle refugees, and the additional autonomy of self-rule did not seem worth giving up the right of return or significant parts of Jerusalem. It is also clear that much of the international aid that flows to the Palestinian Authority would, and will, continue, whether or not the Palestinians agreed to any particular peace deal.
So, this new equilibrium of the Israelis and Palestinians being “kind of” at war persists. And it persists because of a lack of strength of the incentive for this equilibrium to shift. In this, the threat of annexation provides the best promise for a new way forward. If positive incentives of peace aren’t enough to get both sides to finalize an end to their conflict, negative incentives are the next logical step.
A Palestinian people given the choice between status quo and a peace with Israel, but with a demilitarized state, without a right of return and a less-than-ideal portion of Jerusalem will choose the status quo over and over. But, if the rejection of this peace significantly worsens the status quo- reduces the amount of land Palestinians eventually would get for their state, cuts them off from Jerusalem further and threatens the financial health of their government, then peace might look like a lot better of a choice.
Similarly, Israelis, given the choice between status quo and a peace with the Palestinians, but with reduced sovereignty over Jerusalem, loss of West Bank land for more settlements and decreased security over their borders would also choose the status quo over and over. But, if the rejection of this peace would mean the U.S. allowing UN resolutions to go forward that recognized Palestinian claims to Jerusalem, trade boycotts and economic pressure from Europe and the lowering of U.S. military aid, then maybe peace with the Palestinians seems like the least-worst option.
So, those 2-State advocates who hate the threat of settlement annexation should reconfigure the substance of their criticism. Instead of saying that threatening this negative incentive is, on its own, damaging to peace, they should claim that it is an incomplete gesture. They should ask that any negative incentive used to bully the Palestinians towards the negotiating table be matched with an equally negative incentive to do the same for the Israelis.
If the current reality of Israeli-Palestinian relations were bad enough that peace would clearly be a better alternative, then peace would be our reality. But, that isn’t the case. Therefore, the only way to move towards a new equilibrium in this conflict is by threatening to make the current status quo, for each party in this conflict, considerably worse. And the threat of West Bank settlement annexation is probably the most logical, though incomplete, first step towards achieving this end.