The day after annexation: Israel, Palestine and the one-state reality
The countdown to Israel's annexation of the West Bank has begun. The last major obstacle, the approval of the new 'unity' government between Benyamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz by Israel's High Court will likely be passed this week.
There will remain some additional formalities to fulfil, such as completing the work of the joint US-Israel committee tasked with mapping the territory to be annexed.
But Netanyahu, and the settler movement that backs him, will be within touching distance of the Israeli right-wing's cherished dream of creating a State of Greater Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
It is undoubtedly Palestinians that will suffer the most in the short term from the consequences of annexation and the proliferation of rights abuses against them. Over the longer term, though, it may be Israelis who will lose the most.
Annexation will cause a major political dislocation. It will put paid to what is left of the Oslo-configured Middle East Peace Process that has underpinned the quest for a two-state solution for nearly three decades. In its place, it will usher in a new, but as of yet still largely unsettled, one-state paradigm.
|It is already clear that the central dividing line will be the fight against apartheid and the demand for equal rights for Palestinians within a binational state|
This new phase may play out over a generation. But it is already clear that the central dividing line will be the fight against apartheid and the demand for equal rights for Palestinians within a binational state.
In such a scenario Israelis will face an almost impossible choice from their perspective: either enforcing apartheid through military rule to safeguard Israel's Jewish characteristics or promote democracy through the extension of full rights to all Palestinians, including those in Gaza.
Arguably, the shift towards a one-state paradigm has been underway for some time. The senior Palestinian PLO leadership remains wedded to the concept of two states. But many other Palestinians – particularly amongst younger generations – have long ago reached the conclusion that a viable and truly sovereign Palestinian state has slipped through their grasp.
All, however, agree that Israel's unrelenting drive to settle the occupied West Bank, combined with international timidity, has led to the unravelling of the two-state project over the past years.
|Read more: The failed dethroning of Netanyahu: Benny Gantz's
betrayal has secured Israel's right-wing future
Today, beyond the Palestinian Joint List and Meretz, there is no political constituency in Israel that advocates the sort of policy positions and actions that would be needed to achieve an end-of-conflict agreement with the PLO in line with internationally accepted two-state parameters.
Much of this can be attributed to the success and assertiveness of the settler movement which has worked assiduously to mainstream the settlement enterprise at home and abroad.
To the chagrin of settlers, however, successive Israeli governments have avoided extending Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank until now – with the exception of East Jerusalem which was annexed in 1980.
The reasons for such reluctance are multiple and complex – but stem in large part from Israel's desire to preserve a degree of ambiguity concerning the status of the West Bank so as to avoid trapping itself in a binational state where Jews would be on demographic parity with Palestinians.
Thanks to a combination of domestic politics and concerted pressure from the Trump administration, Israel is now finally on the verge of making this formal shift from de facto to de jure annexation.
The Israeli government could decide to start with a limited annexation in order to test international reactions. But it will nevertheless create a precedent that will be seized upon by the settler movement, setting in motion the incremental absorption of all settlements into Israel, and making it almost impossible for any future government to ever contemplate withdrawing from them.
In the process, it will formalise the fragmentation of the Palestinian people and their territory into a series of disconnected Bantustans.
|Israel's unrelenting drive to settle the occupied West Bank, combined with international timidity, has led to the unravelling of the two-state project over the past years|
For the sake of ideological maximalism, Israel is sacrificing what has been a relatively sustainable occupation and settlement enterprise whose success is predicated on the vision that a two-state solution is almost, but never quite, within reach.
Without this convenient fig-leaf, the naked one-state reality of open-ended occupation and unequal rights for Palestinians would be visible for all to see. The disappearance of this fig-leaf, courtesy of the settler movement, will bring into stark relief the reality of apartheid that exists on the ground today.
The demise of the current two-state paradigm will offer the Palestinian national movement new opportunities, particularly when it comes to bringing Palestinian refugees (which would have been the main losers of a two-state solution) back into the national fold. But it will also throw up many immediate questions and challenges.
Pivoting towards a demand for equal rights will necessitate an overhaul of the Palestinian national movement, starting with reviving mechanisms for popular representation and mending the current Gaza-West Bank divide.
|Read more: Interactive timeline: The history of Israeli settlements since 1967|
It will also raise thorny questions as to how the Palestinian movement should relate to the Israeli political system. From a tactical perspective, should Palestinians be demanding equal rights as Israeli citizens and a vote in Knesset elections?
Another immediate question will be the fate of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its institutions. Around half of Palestinians see the PA as a burden, and President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly threatened to dismantle it.
Read more: The Netanyahu-Gantz coalition farce
Yet such a step would come with profound consequences for daily life if Israel is forced to resume direct control over Palestinians.
Such a move could also call into question Palestine's international standing and the hundreds of bilateral agreements signed with third states, and even undermine international measures to exclude Israeli settlements from agreements with Israel.
|Pivoting towards a demand for equal rights will necessitate an overhaul of the Palestinian national movement, starting with reviving mechanisms for popular representation and mending the current Gaza-West Bank divide|
Last but not least, it could have an impact on proceedings against Israel at the International Criminal Court (ICC) where Palestinian statehood is a core consideration.
These are only some of the fundamental dilemmas that will need to be thought through in order to ensure that Palestinians enter the new paradigm in a stronger - not weaker - position. The burden of charting a way forward must fall first and foremost to Palestinians.
While such discussions are well under way in many parts of Palestinian society, articulating a new one-state strategy that can mobilise the full polity will be a complex, time-consuming – and likely messy – undertaking.
This does not mean that international actors, such as the EU, should wait on the side-lines. Developments over the coming months will create deep uncertainty and anxiety for all involved.
|Read more: Israel's coronavirus coup: Netanyahu's tightening grip
on power bodes badly for Palestinians
Now more than ever they must hold fast to the core tenets of the international rules-based order while setting down clear markers to guide international engagement going forward.
As Israel edges towards the cliff top, the first task of the international community should be to drive home warnings that annexation, and violation of the UN's Founding Charter, will come with a tangible cost to Israel's international standing and bilateral relations.
The EU and a number of its member states have already begun diplomatic demarches in this regard. Others must follow suit.
While the EU and its international partners are reluctant to call time on the two-state solution absent a clear signal from the PLO, they should be unequivocal in their rejection of open-ended occupation and apartheid.
In the absence of a realistic two-state solution, they should make clear that the only acceptable alternative for achieving equal rights for both peoples will be through a binational state.
Hugh Lovatt is a policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations based in London
Follow him on Twitter: @h_lovatt