When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a pre-election speech pledging to apply sovereignty to almost a third of the West Bank (starting with the Jordan Valley), was he simply acknowledging a reality that many see – Jewish land belongs to Jews – or was he suggesting something more needling and provocative, which would please his supporters but might alienate his detractors?
Let me bring you into the battle that my brain went through when I first heard this.
It’s simple. The Jewish people should have sovereignty over the West Bank, what is referred to in the Torah as Yehuda and Shomron. Micah Goodman writes, “The Jewish people’s body is the Land of Israel. Hebron, Bethlehem and Shiloh do not ‘belong’ to the Jewish people – they are an inseparable part of the Jewish people. One’s location does not just account for where one is but who one is.”
Actually, it’s complicated. Demographers debate the number of Palestinians living in the West Bank. Yoram Ettinger says there are 1.75 million Palestinians living there, and Arnon Sofer claims there are over 2.5 million Palestinians living there. How should that be taken into account when talking about the concept of applying Jewish sovereignty in the West Bank?
It’s simple. Israel needs security, plain and simple. Israel does not want to have security dangers in general, and it certainly will not tolerate existential dangers. Therefore, wherever the peace process takes us, Israel will almost certainly demand to have a military presence in the Jordan Valley. When Israel decisively won the Six Day War in 1967, the initial plan laid out by Defense Minister Yigal Allon, known as the Allon Plan, was to ensure there would always be a military presence in the Jordan Valley.
Actually, it’s complicated. Goodman points out that the Palestinians’ Karameh, or national pride, would not tolerate an Israeli security presence in a future Palestinian state.
So, which one is it? Simple or Complicated?
While all of this might sound complicated, our job is to UNPACK this and simplify it for you so you can discuss this with one another in an informed, respectful and civil way.
Let’s dive into this particular topic, and let’s also make sure we understand the context for the upcoming elections.
In an election speech, PM Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to apply sovereignty to the Jordan Valley portion of the West Bank. This area, which is currently controlled by Israel, is home to about 10,000 Israelis and 9,000 Palestinians (excluding roughly 40,000 in Jericho and al-Auja, which would be encircled but not included in this plan). Speaking just a week before Israeli national elections, he stated: “If I receive from you, citizens of Israel, a clear mandate to do so… today I announce my intention to apply, with the formation of the next government, Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea.” His statement received attention from the Israeli right, the Israeli left, Palestinians, and the international community.
Why Does This Matter?
- What is annexation in the first place?
Annexation is a complicated concept in international relations, one that is much disputed today. It is the act of incorporating another country (or parts of it) into your own. One example is U.S. annexation of Hawaii in 1898. In 1967, Israel captured large territories in its defensive Six Day War: The Golan Heights from Syria, Sinai from Egypt, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. Israel later returned Sinai and annexed the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. The West Bank has remained a contentious topic; Jordan relinquished its claim to it in 1988, so from a legal perspective, to use the term “annexation” is problematic, since it does not and has not belonged to any other country. It is relevant to note that over 100 countries recognize Palestine as a country, even though it is not, and never has been, a state. The Oslo Accords of 1993-5 divided up the West Bank into three areas: A – under Palestinian Authority (PA) control, B – under joint PA-Israeli control, and C – under Israeli control. Israeli areas in the West Bank are known as “settlements.” Some people consider this area “occupied territory,” others call it “disputed territory,” and still others view it as part of “Greater Israel.” The Jordan Valley is Area C, excluding a few Area A Palestinian locations within it. There are additional international legal issues involved, and the whole subject is an extremely complicated one. Keep an eye out for our upcoming videos on the subject. Complicating matters even more, PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh earlier announced that the Palestinians would start building throughout the West Bank, including in Area C.
- Is the term “occupied” a fair one or not?
The very term “occupation” is a loaded one, and we will not spill too much ink on this topic right now (Look out for our upcoming videos on the settlements!). Within Israel itself, there is a serious dispute regarding terminology. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said that “Israel’s presence in the territory is often incorrectly referred to as an ‘occupation.’…The last recognized sovereign of the West Bank and Gaza was the Ottoman Empire, which ceased to exist following the first World War. The Jordanian and Egyptian control over the West Bank and Gaza, respectively, following 1948 was never recognized by the international community. Consequently, the West Bank can best be regarded as disputed territory over which there are competing claims that should be resolved in peace talks.” So, not occupied. Yet, according to the State of Israel’s High Court of Justice, “Since 1967, Israel has been holding the areas of Judea and Samaria in belligerent occupation.” This was set forth in the Alfei Menashe case in 2004-2005. In that case, it was determined that “the legal meaning of this view is twofold: first, Israeli law does not apply in these areas. They have not been ‘annexed’ to Israel. Second, the legal regime which applies in these areas is determined by public international law regarding belligerent occupation.” So, occupied. Some in Israel have voiced frustration with this ruling by the Supreme Court.
- Why the Jordan Valley?
The Jordan Valley is a strip of land to the east of the West Bank of the Jordan River. It is an area, like the Golan, that most Israelis, including the center-left, consider to be rightfully theirs and an area vital to Israel’s security. Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum explains why Netanyahu chose to focus on this area rather than other parts of the West Bank: “Even as he is vying for the far-right vote, Bibi went for what codes to most Israelis as an area that ‘has to stay in our hands.’ In so doing, he challenged his rivals to explain why such a move would be reckless or illegitimate.” So, in addition to appealing to right-wing voters, Netanyahu forced his main rival, Blue and White Benny Gantz, to essentially agree with him on this topic. The Allon Plan, conceived immediately after the Six Day War, had the intention of never letting go of the Jordan Valley. It was and is a vital strategic military area.
- Pre-election promises
Netanyahu made this announcement one week before Israel’s national elections. Many are skeptical of Netanyahu’s words and view them as an empty promise made to obtain votes. To the right, Ayelet Shaked, head of Yamina, stated: “This is just a declaration. There is no action here… Applying sovereignty [to the Jordan Valley] can be done in a cabinet decision. There is no need for legislation” and as such Netanyahu could have done so before the elections. Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit, said that Netanyahu has promised many things in the past that he hasn’t followed through on regarding settlements, so he does not believe him now when he says he will act. Blue and White co-leader Yair Lapid asserted that Netanyahu “doesn’t want to annex lands, he wants to annex votes,” echoing the sentiment that Netanyahu could have annexed the Jordan Valley long ago.
Diversity Of Perspectives Within Israel
Ahead of Israel’s April elections, a Haaretz poll found that 42% of Israelis support some form of West Bank annexation. This number points to the divisive nature of the topic within Israeli society.
As noted above, many politicians view Netanyahu’s statement as a mere attempt to gain votes, and that he will not follow through. Others are taking his statement more seriously, though, with some seeing it as a potential break-through and some as a potential travesty. Journalist Caroline Glick (author of the telling book The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East) points to the fact that Netanyahu has a relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump that is unprecedented for Israeli and American premiers, and a rare opportunity to use it to Israel’s advantage. The fact that sources in Washington have acknowledged that there is no contradiction between Netanyahu’s plan the White House’s, she argues, is a major deal. Gershon Bashkin, on the other hand, founder of Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), made the dramatic statement that Netanyahu has “declared war” on the two-state solution. Addressing the prime minister harshly, he said: “Your annexation plan is shooting the first shot of a third intifada. You have declared war on the chances of living in peace for the foreseeable future.”
Many Jewish residents of the West Bank celebrated Netanyahu’s announcement. David Elhayani, mayor of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, explained: “Security and settlements go together.” Palestinian residents, on the other hand, denounced it. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat explained: “It’s impossible to have a Palestinian state without the Jordan Valley.”
What’s unique (and complicated) about this issue is the fervor with which staunch Israel supporters believe either that annexation and settlement expansion is the only way to establish Israel’s security or that it’s the country’s biggest impediment to peace. As Israeli author, Micah Goodman puts it, “Israel’s presence in the territories both fulfills Zionism and contradicts Zionism… It turns out that everyone is right, and since everyone is right – all are trapped” (Catch-67).
- When Israel annexed the Golan and East Jerusalem, the world didn’t recognize the annexations. Presumably, it wouldn’t recognize annexation of the Jordan Valley either. Should Israel care about international recognition and/or opinion? Explain.
- Prime Minister Menachem Begin said about the West Bank: “You annex foreign land, not your own country.” What did he mean by this? Was he referring to the land as the historical possession of the Jewish people, or as a recently acquired piece of real estate? Is there a practical difference between the two? Is the fact that the Jewish people had sovereignty in the land of Israel 2000 years ago before being expelled by the Romans a legitimate real estate claim? If yes, why? If not, why not?
- With all of Israel’s military prowess, should Israel feel safe or insecure? How do young people perceive Israel? In an eJewishphilanthropy article, Robbie Gringrass pointed out: “Iraq is no longer a mortal threat to Israel, nor is Syria. The peace with Egypt is stable, and Gulf States are secret allies. The Israeli military establishment agrees that attacks from Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank take a terrible toll but present no threat to Israel’s ongoing existence. Only Iran remains a true mortal enemy. Given this shift, Israel’s security concerns are far more nuanced than they once were.” His point in mentioning this is that Israel’s military choices are more challenging to teach about than the “black-white, good-bad discourse” available when addressing the wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973.
- Many argue that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are an “obstacle to peace.” What do you think they mean by that? Do you agree?
- As quoted above, Israeli author Micah Goodman writes in Catch 67: “It turns out that everyone is right, and since everyone is right – all are trapped.” Do you agree that Israelis are “trapped” in their current geo-political reality? Is there a way for the country to escape? Does this statement make it sound like there is no single truth and there is moral equivalency on all sides?
Practical Classroom Tips
- Watch this video and use the accompanying materials to unpack the iconic story of the Lamed Hey and the early Israeli settlements of Gush Etzion.
- Use our related past article on the two-state solution to enhance your classroom discussion of this complex topic.
- Watch this video by Eugene Kontorovitch explaining the nature of the legalities of the West Bank. Compare and contrast his ideas to those stated throughout this article.
- Maps, maps and maps. Make sure to use Center for Israel Education’s maps and the maps about the Allon Plan. Much of the Arab-Israeli conflict can be understood better when understanding the nature of how borders and plans have shifted over time.
- Prepare your students for this week’s Israeli elections by using our past articles on the subject. Find a guide to mock elections here.
In Other News…
- 19-year-old Israeli Mark Mallar set a new world record at the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships, thus qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. The event was originally supposed to take place in Malaysia but was moved to London after Malaysia refused entry to Israeli competitors. (Read more about Israeli athletics here.)
- Read the fascinating story of Chinese students studying Hebrew literature.
- Memories of a first grade teacher: Rabbanit Miriam Amital, wife of late religious Zionist leader Rabbi Yehuda Amital, reunited with her first grade class of 1948. She is 92, and her former students are 76. One student, Professor Margalit Shiloh, recounted how Amital taught and inspired the group when Israel was just founded and had extremely limited resources: “She absorbed new Olim who didn’t know Hebrew and walked kilometers every day from their immigration camps. She took us out of the classroom to learn in nature. She encouraged us to write and express ourselves. Some of us loved her so much we called her ‘Ima.’ Despite the poverty and modesty, she filled us with happiness and gratitude for what we had.”