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

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

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.

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Sandra Tamari is executive director of Adalah Justice Project.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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