What does Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation threat mean?

The Palestinians will be left with a series of disconnected islands of land that will leave them stateless forever

FILE PHOTO: A general view picture shows houses in the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, in the occupied West Bank February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played what appeared to be his final trump card last week before Tuesday’s election: that he would annex parts of the West Bank and bring them under Israeli sovereignty if he wins.

It was a bid to win more right-wing votes as the race between him and opposition leader Benny Gantz becomes the closest he has ever faced. That he told three different media outlets he could bring Israeli sovereignty to the occupied territories is indicative of how he wanted this bombshell to reach far and wide on the last lap of the campaign.

“You are asking whether we are moving on to the next stage – the answer is yes, we will move to the next stage. I am going to extend sovereignty and I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and the isolated settlements,” he said.

But what does it actually mean if he follows through with any annexation?

Who wants what?

More than 600,000 settlers already live in the occupied territories of East Jerusalem and West Bank in a network of more than 100 settlements dotted across both.

The ultra-religious Jews, who believe the West Bank to be their biblical home, are already protected by the Israeli military, serviced by the Israeli government and even have their own highways. They are surrounded by 2.9 million occupied Palestinians but seek to prevent them from creating their own nation state on Israel's borders.

Palestinians seek those territories to be included in any future Palestinian state and any annexation of settlements that could have been withdrawn in any future peace deal will become Israeli territory and therefore non-negotiable for the Israeli government.

The ramifications of annexation

Annexation of the settlements would therefore leave the Palestinians with only disconnected islands of land, punctuated by large illegal blocs that would be deemed Israeli territory, and no hope of a contiguous sovereign state. They have long claimed that this has been Israel’s intention all along.

The international community considers the settlement enterprise to be illegal under international law, as Israel has confiscated Palestinian land and transferred its population into occupied territories. Any move to annex the settlements would be opposed at the highest international levels. Turkey has already said it would not allow Israel to change the status of the West Bank.

Israel commentators are asking why Mr Netanyahu has not annexed the West Bank settlements in the previous 10 years he has spent in power, but he was not mired in corruption troubles before ahead of a crucial election on which his legacy hinges. He has nixed three bills in the two years about annexing parts of occupied East Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley and the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim.

What areas would be annexed?

It is also unclear what settlements or areas, if any, he would annex. He has said he will not differentiate between big settlement blocs and isolated outposts situated deep into the West Bank.

But if he was to annex Area C of the West Bank, as demarcated as under Israeli civil control in the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, he would effectively be taking over 60 per cent of the territory.

What about Trump?

If he took the decision, he would also surely have the support of US President Donald Trump, who has recognised the entirety of Jerusalem, including East Jerusalem, and the occupied Golan Heights as Israeli territory since coming to power in January 2016.

US backing for West Bank annexation would embolden Mr Netanyahu to take the jump and, in an ominous statement for the Palestinians, he told Israel’s Channel 13 on Friday to “wait until the next term” to see what happens.

The status of the West Bank, the settlements, and Palestinian claims to the land, were to be agreed upon in any final negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. But Mr Netanyahu has vowed to never transfer an inch of West Bank land to Palestinian sovereignty.

So, with Mr Trump in power and Mr Netanyahu on course for another election victory, it is becoming clearer than ever that the Palestinians will likely never witness those talks.