Annexation Delayed, Coronavirus Crisis Remains

9 July 2020

Since May, when Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party and the Blue and White Party signed a coalition agreement in the shadow of a coronavirus emergency, which committed their government to embark on West Bank annexation in some form, our attention has collectively been fixed on this looming disaster.

Pundits speculated about its potential scope and contours. Would it be a large or small annexation? What would be the impact on Palestinian rights, Israeli democracy, and the hopes for peace and reconciliation?

Since that time, we have heard a steady drumbeat of opposition from around the world.

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president has warned that annexation will “choke off any hope for peace.” Prominent surrogates for his campaign cautioned that annexation is “playing with fire.” Democratic lawmakers have also emphasized the risks, even threatening to condition the use of US aid – or restrict it more broadly – if Israel moves forward with unilateral annexation in open violation of international law.

Stark warnings have emerged from Israel’s regional partners – including from King Abdullah II of Jordan and the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba – further clarifying that annexation would not come cost-free. In a rare joint statement, the foreign ministers of Egypt, Germany, France and Jordan declared that they would not recognize any unilateral changes to the 1967 borders.

Here at home, while some Jewish institutions may have declared their willingness to defend the indefensible, the leadership of the progressive American Jewish community continues to sound the alarm bells, warning of the harms annexation would pose to the future for both Palestinians and Israelis.

The Progressive Israel Network, a coalition of ten progressive Jewish organizations of which NIF is a founding member, has spoken out at every available opportunity. The network sent an urgent letter to Israel’s Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi warning that “formalizing Israel’s control over occupied territories through unilateral annexation forecloses on hopes for peace and poses a terminal threat to Israel’s democratic character.” A Global Jewish Coalition to Stop Annexation mobilized over 100 prominent lawyers, jurists and law professors from around the world to remind Israel’s decision-makers that annexation of any scope would “fundamentally breach a central prohibition under international law.”

A younger generation of American Jews is raising its voice, too. Over 180 graduates of prominent Israel fellowships, including NIF/Shatil’s Social Justice Fellowship, warned that annexation risks “entrench[ing] a system of discrimination between Israeli citizens and Palestinian subjects,” urging American Jewish leaders to act in every possible way to oppose annexation.

In Israel, meanwhile, the chorus of opposition has reverberated loudly. Last month, thousands of Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to protest the government’s planned annexation. Nitzan Horowitz, chairman of the Meretz Party, called annexation “a war crime, a crime against peace, a crime against humanity, a crime that will result in bloodshed.” Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, laid it out clearly for the crowd that Israel stands at a crossroads: “One path leads to a joint society with a real democracy, civil and national equality for Arab citizens,” he said, while “the second path leads to hatred, violence, annexation, and apartheid.”

In this precarious moment, every ounce of opposition to this unnecessary and disastrous move is critical. And while the threat is far from past, the growing sense of hesitation and doubt may have helped to hold annexation at bay, at least temporarily. Only time will tell whether this is a mere pause in Netanyahu’s march toward annexation.

Yet the frenzy around annexation has not supplanted growing popular frustration with the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

The numbers just don’t lie. In the face of a renewed spike of infections, public confidence in the government’s handling of coronavirus has plummeted. According to a recent poll, 59% of the Israeli public does not trust the government to manage it effectively. While back in early May, three quarters of Israelis felt confident in Netanyahu’s individual performance in handling the crisis, now less than half the public believe Netanyahu is doing an adequate job.

Israel’s citizens are experiencing an economy in crisis, and unemployment numbers that have left close to a quarter of Israelis jobless. This is the reality they feel in their daily lives: 60% of Israelis, according to another poll, by the Israel Democracy Institute, fear for their financial future.

That is why there was a public outcry when the minister-without-portfolio from the Likud Party, Tzachi Hanegbi, a Netanyahu loyalist, said on Channel 12 that Israelis who claimed they had nothing to eat were talking “bullshit.” Hanegbi later apologized, but the damage was done, and a perception of a government out of touch with the pain of its citizens remains.

Israelis are saying, loud and clear, that they want a government that is responsive to the crisis they see before them. At this point, for the vast majority of Israelis, annexation is simply not a priority. Israelis are not convinced by the prime minister’s claim that this moment presents a “historic opportunity.” A recent poll by the Hebrew University showed that less than 3% of Israelis view annexation as a critical issue. It also showed that a significant majority of the Israeli public opposes the government’s unilateral annexation plan. They are focused instead on the things that matter to them the most: Israel’s economy, the fate of its healthcare system, democratic protections, and government corruption.

This is precisely what New Israel Fund is ensuring Israeli civil society is equipped to fight for during this global pandemic. We launched our Crisis Action Plan, NIF’s blueprint for helping Israel’s civil society stay on its feet to protect the most marginalized communities and defend democracy, at the outset of the pandemic crisis.

This includes advocating for robust and equitable economic relief for those suffering most, and defending civil liberties and democracy, which have come under increasing strain as the pandemic goes on. And we will continue this fight.

Every day of this crisis, it is clear the vital role that civil society plays – and must continue to play – to ensure an equitable and just response to the unprecedented challenge it presents. The New Israel Fund will continue to empower those fighting for a democratic, just and equal society in Israel and for all who are living under its control, in this moment of crisis – and after.