World·Analysis

Former Israeli foreign minister calls on Netanyahu to abandon West Bank annexation plan

The former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni has added her voice to those calling on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to abandon plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, saying it would close the door on peace with the Palestinians and threaten the idea of Israel as a Jewish democratic state.

PM says plan recognizes reality on ground but critics say it would end prospect of 2-state solution

A view Tuesday shows Israeli settlement buildings around Givat Zeev and Ramat Givat Zeev in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, near Jerusalem. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

Former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni has added her voice to those calling on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to abandon plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, saying it would close the door on peace with the Palestinians and threaten the idea of Israel as a Jewish democratic state.

"The idea of partial annexation that would keep the Palestinians in enclaves within the West Bank surrounded by Israeli territories [is] not sustainable," she said in a Skype interview with CBC.  

"I prefer to keep the road for peace open and not to take steps that would take us all to … the point of no return."

Livni was chief negotiator for Israel in peace talks with the Palestinians brokered by the United States in 2013/14 and has held eight cabinet portfolios in addition to serving as opposition leader.  

Netanyahu has been pledging to annex, or in his words, extend Israeli sovereignty, over the Jordan Valley and Jewish settlements in the West Bank for several months, emboldened by U.S. President Donald Trump's peace plan.  

Unveiled in January, it would see 30 per cent of the West Bank brought under permanent Israeli control while giving the Palestinians limited autonomy on land left over. 

WATCH | Tzipi Livni says she believes annexation of Palestinian territory is wrong for the future of Israel:

Tzipi Livni says she believes annexation of Palestinian territory is wrong for the future of Israel. 0:48

The Palestinians have rejected the plan and critics say it would end any prospect of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  

Netanyahu says the plan simply recognizes reality on the ground. 

"Applying Israeli law to areas of Judea and Samaria [the Biblical names used by the Israeli government for the West Bank] that will remain part of Israel in any future peace deal will not set back the cause of peace," he said in a virtual speech to the American Christians United for Israel a few days ago.  

"It will advance peace."  

WATCH | Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says annexation will advance peace:

Benjamin Netanyahu said annexation will advance peace during a speech to a virtual summit on June 28. 0:42

Livni argues that it will harm Israel's long-term security by advancing the likelihood of a "one-state" scenario.  

"We believe there's a need to keep a Jewish majority," said Livni. She said without a possibility to express their voting rights in a state of their own, more Palestinians are talking about one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and demanding equal voting rights. 

"This would not be an Israeli Jewish democratic state. This will be a binational state with an ongoing conflict without giving an answer to the national aspirations of [either side.]" 

There are an estimated 430,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank, according to the Israeli rights group Peace Now, and 2.7 million Palestinians who live under a combination of some Palestinian civil rule and Israeli military control.  

Support from Washington

The settlements are illegal under international law, having been built on land captured and occupied in 1967. Israel doesn't accept that, saying the territory is disputed. 

Supporters of Netanyahu's plans argue time is of the essence in moving ahead given the unprecedented support being offered by the Trump administration. 

Trump has recognized both Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights in 1981 and Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.  Palestinians hope East Jerusalem, officially annexed by Israel in 1980 and now home to more than 200,000 Jewish settlers, according to Peace Now, will be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

"What Israel can afford doing now with American support is not something that can be delayed indefinitely," said Prof. Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, in a recent publication. 

Children watch a rally through a home window fence in Gaza City on Wednesday as Palestinians call for a 'day of rage' to protest against Israel's plan to annex parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

"Israel should seize this moment to apply its law to the Jordan Valley and to the environs of Jerusalem in order to guarantee Israeli security for generations." 

Netanyahu set July 1 as the target date for bringing annexation plans forward. But on Wednesday, a Netanyahu confidant confirmed the plan would not start on July 1, and said officials were still working out details with their American counterparts. The confidant said he expected the annexation would occur later this month. 

International opposition increasing 

Meanwhile, international opposition to Netanyahu's plan has been growing.  

On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote an article for the front page of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot.  

"As a lifelong friend, admirer and supporter of Israel, I am fearful that these proposals will fail in their objective of securing Israel's borders and will be contrary to Israel's own long-term interests," Johnson wrote.  

If annexation did go ahead, he said, "the U.K. will not recognize any changes to the 1967 lines, except those agreed between both parties." 

The front page Wednesday of the Hebrew language daily Yedioth Ahronoth included a piece written by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warning Israel against annexing the West Bank. (CBC)

Last week, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said "annexation would constitute the most serious violation of international law" and called on Israel to abandon its plans.

More than 1,000 European legislators, including 240 from the United Kingdom, also published an open letter appealing to their governments to act to stop Israel from proceeding.    

Hugh Lovatt, a Middle East expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the European Union was trying to come up with some form of action. 

"Not just in terms of preserving the two-state solution, but also in terms of defending the international legal order," he said.  

Jordan has warned of consequences

Jordan, just one of two countries to have peace treaties with Israel in the Middle East along with Egypt, has warned of dire consequences if the West Bank annexation takes place. 

And Arab states from the Gulf have said the recent warming in their relations with Israel could be jeopardized. 

Amichai Cohen, a lawyer with the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, said the only opinion that really counts with Netanyahu is the one in the White House.  

Given the lack of a definitive signal from the U.S., Cohen believes Netanyahu might move ahead carefully.

A Palestinian demonstrator runs during a protest against Israel's plan to annex parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, near the Jewish settlement of Beit El near Ramallah, on Wednesday. (Mohamad Torokman/Reuters)

"I don't think it will be the entire 30 per cent of the West Bank that the Trump plan is talking about," he said. "More probably it'll be something more symbolic, like specific Jewish settlements near Jerusalem. Something like that." 

A May opinion poll for the Democracy Institute found that 52 per cent of Jewish Israelis supported Netanyahu's annexation plans.  

'Part of my responsibility'

Livni said she decided to be more vocal on the subject despite her retirement from politics because she worries there is a perception abroad that all Israelis support annexation.  

"I felt that part of my responsibility is to say no. There is around half of the Israeli society that are against it."  

Mobile houses sit on a hill in the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on Wednesday. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

She said she would like to see the Palestinians engage in negotiations and acknowledges that successive rounds of peace talks, including her own, have failed. 

But it does not shake her of her conviction that annexation would be an historical mistake.  

"I believe that taking the right steps in order to keep the road open, and it's still open, is the right thing to do for now even if peace is not just around the corner," she said.  

"And it's not, unfortunately."

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