The Problem With Israel’s Annexation Is Its Brutality, Not Its Optics

We need strong condemnation of Israel’s annexation plans, not handwringing over bad P.R.

Sandra Tamari July 1, 2020

A Palestinian child stands at his family land east of Tubas in the Jordan Valley on June 15, 2020. (Photo by JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP via Getty Images)

With Trump’s approval, Israel plans to for­mal­ly annex — or steal — large swaths of Pales­tin­ian land in the occu­pied West Bank and per­ma­nent­ly rule over Pales­tini­ans with­out giv­ing them cit­i­zen­ship or basic rights. There has been much U.S. media atten­tion paid to con­dem­na­tions of the annex­a­tion plans from sup­port­ers of Israel. Robert Sat­loff, head of the Wash­ing­ton Insti­tute for Near East Peace, a hawk­ish, pro-Israel think tank, wrote a piece in the Wash­ing­ton Post titled, I’m an Ardent Zion­ist and I am Opposed to Annex­a­tion.” (Zion­ism refers to the polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy that sup­ports the real­iza­tion of a Jew­ish-ruled eth­no-state in Pales­tine.) Islam­o­phobe and right-wing Zion­ist Daniel Pipes in May wrote an opin­ion piece in the New York Times titled, Annex­ing the West Bank Would Hurt Israel.” These sto­ries might give the impres­sion that crit­i­cism of Israel’s bel­liger­ent act of aggres­sion is alive and well in the Unit­ed States.

Palestinians have been forced to endure Israel’s policies of expulsion and land appropriation for over 70 years.

How­ev­er, a clos­er look at these crit­i­cisms shows that they stem not from a con­cern about the safe­ty, rights and sov­er­eign­ty of the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple being fur­ther dis­pos­sessed, but rather, from a fear that the planned annex­a­tion will harm Israel’s image as a democ­ra­cy with a com­mit­ment to a nego­ti­at­ed peace. In oth­er words, it’s about pro­tect­ing Israel’s optics, for the pur­pose of allow­ing it to con­tin­ue its ruth­less treat­ment of Palestinians.

Peace Now, which calls itself the largest and longest-stand­ing Israeli move­ment advo­cat­ing for peace,“ issued a state­ment enti­tled, Annex­a­tion is Bad for Israel,” delin­eat­ing that it oppos­es annex­a­tion because it threat­ens Israeli secu­ri­ty, enflames Pales­tin­ian extrem­ists,” and pro­motes sup­port for the Pales­tin­ian call for Boy­cott, Divest­ment and Sanc­tions. J Street, a U.S.-based pro-Israel, pro-peace” lob­by, like­wise oppos­es annex­a­tion but has not advo­cat­ed for leg­is­la­tion to reduce U.S. fund­ing to Israel. Most impor­tant for Peace Now and J Street is that annex­a­tion ends the illu­sion of a two-state solu­tion. This is because Israel would be claim­ing sov­er­eign­ty over rough­ly 30% of the land in the occu­pied Pales­tin­ian ter­ri­to­ry of the West Bank, land that has been des­ig­nat­ed to be part of a future Pales­tin­ian state.

The Anti-Defama­tion League (ADL), which bills itself as a civ­il rights orga­ni­za­tion, has in recent decades become a shield to pro­tect Israel from account­abli­ty and defend the state’s racist poli­cies, and has a doc­u­ment­ed his­to­ry of sur­veil­ing Black, Pales­tin­ian, and oth­er pro­gres­sive orga­niz­ers and sup­port­ing racist polic­ing. The ADL is also con­cerned with how Israeli annex­a­tion will be seen in the Unit­ed States specif­i­cal­ly at this time of Black-led upris­ing against racist and dead­ly polic­ing. A leaked inter­nal memo, report­ed at Jew­ish Cur­rents, shows that the ADL expressed wor­ry about how the orga­ni­za­tion will be able to defend Israel from accu­sa­tions of apartheid and for­mal­ized dis­crim­i­na­tion giv­en that any resis­tance by Pales­tini­ans to annex­a­tion will be looked at from the prism of the George Floyd domes­tic move­ment.” The ADL memo goes on to say that at no point should the orga­ni­za­tion give the impres­sion that it sup­ports Israeli annex­a­tion, but should rather engage qui­et­ly with Demo­c­ra­t­ic law­mak­ers, such as Karen Bass, Chair of the Con­gres­sion­al Black Cau­cus, to avoid pub­lic con­fronta­tions. The memo sug­gests that the group hopes to avoid appear­ing open­ly hos­tile to pub­lic crit­i­cism of annex­a­tion while it works to block leg­is­la­tion that harsh­ly cen­sures Israel or leads to mate­r­i­al con­se­quences, such as con­di­tion­ing Unit­ed States mil­i­tary sup­port,” writes reporter Joshua Leifer. 

Pro-Israel orga­ni­za­tions like the Amer­i­can Israel Pub­lic Affairs Com­mit­tee (AIPAC) have been work­ing to let law­mak­ers know that crit­i­ciz­ing annex­a­tion is fine, but the line should be drawn at any real reper­cus­sions for Israel. Elect­ed offi­cials seem to be falling with­in these para­me­ters. Pre­sump­tive Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Joe Biden has stat­ed that he is opposed to annex­a­tion and is com­mit­ted to a two-state solu­tion. On June 17, Biden’s for­eign pol­i­cy advi­sor, Tony Blinken, said that Biden would not tie mil­i­tary assis­tance to Israel to things like annex­a­tion or oth­er deci­sions by the Israeli gov­ern­ment with which we might dis­agree.” In oth­er words, he spoke against the idea that Israel would face con­se­quences for such an aggres­sive act — name­ly, with­draw­al of aid. This posi­tion has been repeat­ed else­where. In May, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­a­tor Jacky Rosen (D‑Nev.), on a phone call with Jew­ish Demo­c­ra­t­ic Coun­cil of Amer­i­ca, expressed con­cerns that annex­a­tion is not in the best inter­ests of Israel and the Unit­ed States, but went on to add that the Unit­ed States should nev­er, nev­er ever, con­di­tion secu­ri­ty assis­tance or unbreak­able bond with Israel on annex­a­tion or on oth­er polit­i­cal policies.”

Let’s get some things straight. Israel has already under­tak­en de fac­to annex­a­tion of the West Bank, and cur­rent­ly oper­ates a sep­a­rate-and-unequal sys­tem across his­toric Pales­tine. Some peo­ple have full rights and oth­ers don’t, sim­ply because of who they are. Jews across the globe have rights inside Israel not afford­ed to Pales­tini­ans liv­ing under Israeli rule on the land.

This is the not the first time that lib­er­al Zion­ists,” indi­vid­u­als who adhere to main­tain­ing a Jew­ish major­i­ty in Pales­tine through con­tin­ued dis­pos­ses­sion of Pales­tini­ans while at the same time claim to sup­port pro­gres­sive val­ues, have faced this kind of dis­so­nance between their pro­fessed val­ues of equal­i­ty and their sup­port of the Jew­ish state. In July 2018, the Israeli Knes­set passed the Nation-State Law enshrin­ing Israel’s exclu­sive­ly Jew­ish char­ac­ter. The law states that only Jews are enti­tled to nation­al self-deter­mi­na­tion, and makes no men­tion of the polit­i­cal rights of Pales­tini­ans. Like annex­a­tion, the pas­sage of the Nation-State Law elicit­ed an out­pour­ing of oppo­si­tion among Amer­i­can sup­port­ers of Israel who see them­selves as pro­gres­sive on domes­tic issues, many of whom lament­ed the end of democ­ra­cy” in Israel. How­ev­er, Israel has always been racist, unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic and exclu­sion­ary when it comes to Pales­tini­ans. But lib­er­al Zion­ists” are more con­cerned with Israel’s image than with the Pales­tin­ian people’s lived reality.

Pales­tini­ans have been forced to endure Israel’s poli­cies of expul­sion and land appro­pri­a­tion for over 70 years. In 1948, rough­ly 750,000 Pales­tini­ans were forced out or fled from Pales­tine. They have nev­er been allowed to return, leav­ing mil­lions of Pales­tini­ans refugees. Dis­crim­i­na­tion, land theft and exclu­sion have always been built into Israeli pol­i­cy. This annex­a­tion scheme is only the lat­est man­i­fes­ta­tion of Zion­ist ambi­tions to con­trol all Pales­tin­ian land.

So it is not sur­pris­ing that much of the cur­rent debate over annex­a­tion in main­stream U.S. pol­i­cy cir­cles has a sin­gu­lar focus on how annex­a­tion will harm Israel’s image. It steers clear of hold­ing Israel account­able for its ille­gal land grab. The com­men­tary sug­gests that tak­ing Pales­tin­ian land is fine, so long as Israel is not obvi­ous about it. Israel’s insti­tu­tion­al back­ers and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­er­ship are open­ing the pres­sure valve to try to neu­tral­ize the grow­ing grass­roots sup­port for Pales­tin­ian rights by offer­ing con­dem­na­tion of annex­a­tion. But by refus­ing to apply any mean­ing­ful pres­sure on Israel to change course, they are allow­ing Israel to con­tin­ue its poli­cies of land theft, dis­pos­ses­sion and state-sanc­tioned racism against the Pales­tin­ian people. 

How­ev­er, not all the Democ­rats have fol­lowed this line of think­ing. On June 30, Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) and 12 oth­er mem­bers of Con­gress announced they will release a let­ter to Sec­re­tary of State Pom­peo that sug­gests that annex­a­tion is the foun­da­tion for Israel becom­ing an apartheid state,” and that if annex­a­tion pro­ceeds they will pur­sue con­di­tions on the $3.8 bil­lion in U.S. mil­i­tary fund­ing to Israel.” With 12 mem­bers of the House along with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.), this let­ter is the result of many years of grass­roots move­ment orga­niz­ing to hold Israel account­able for its vio­la­tions of Pales­tin­ian rights. While the let­ter is a huge step in the right direc­tion, the pres­sure now must turn to hav­ing Con­gress intro­duce leg­is­la­tion to lever­age the $3.8 bil­lion in tax­pay­er mon­ey that goes to Israel each year to hold Israel account­able for vio­la­tions of human rights. 

Pales­tini­ans have long demand­ed that the Unit­ed States stop fund­ing the weapons, sys­tems and poli­cies that kill them. Pales­tini­ans in the Unit­ed States and around the globe take inspi­ra­tion from the demands of the Move­ment for Black Lives to divest from harm and invest in com­mu­ni­ties. Defund­ing the police is the domes­tic equiv­a­lent of the demand to end U.S. mil­i­tarism around the globe, start­ing with an end to mil­i­tary fund­ing to Israel, the largest cumu­la­tive recip­i­ent of U.S. aid since World War II. 

End­ing the fund­ing of sys­tems of vio­lence is a fun­da­men­tal demand of any oppressed com­mu­ni­ty. Our elect­ed offi­cials have a duty to stop bankrolling the killing of our peo­ple and ensure that bud­gets reflect the val­ues and needs of their con­stituents. Pales­tini­ans and their allies demand the U.S. stop fund­ing Israel to buy more weapons to kill Pales­tini­ans. We feel the immense pain of the fam­i­lies who have seen their loved ones killed by Israel since late May, among them Eyad Al-Hal­laq, the 32-year old autis­tic man who was shot down by Israeli forces on the streets of Jerusalem while he was walk­ing to his spe­cial needs school, and Ahmad Erekat, the 27-year old Pales­tin­ian man shot at an Israeli check­point on his way to pick up his sis­ter from the beau­ty salon to deliv­er her to her wed­ding ceremony. 

Hold­ing Israel account­able for its land grabs, extra­ju­di­cial killings and oth­er vio­la­tions of Pales­tin­ian rights must be our demand as a first step toward jus­tice, whether or not Israel decides to go through with for­mal annex­a­tion. It’s long past time to divest from vio­lence and invest in jus­tice. It’s a sim­ple ask: Stop fund­ing the killing of our com­mu­ni­ties. This demand opens up the pos­si­bil­i­ty for the bet­ter world we know is pos­si­ble where every­one, not just those with pow­er, live in safe­ty and have the abil­i­ty to thrive.

San­dra Tamari is exec­u­tive direc­tor of Adalah Jus­tice Project.
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