A Pandemic is the Worst Time for Annexation
The Netanyahu-led government in Israel is reaching the point where it can begin annexing parts of the West Bank. Beginning July 1, the Israeli government will be able to vote on annexation. It is not a question of whether annexation of West Bank territory is a smart policy decision — it is not. However, even if it were a smart policy decision, supporters of annexation need to show why this is a smart decision during a pandemic. The potential effects of such a move demonstrate why annexation during an uncertain time should be avoided.
One sector that Israel could see adverse reactions to annexation is in scientific research and the race to find a cure for COVID-19. On May 15, the European Union held a meeting to discuss ways to respond to annexation. After the meeting, EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell said that the EU “must work to discourage any possible initiative toward annexation.” An option EU ministers discussed was by barring Israel from receiving Horizon 2020 research grants. The Horizon 2020 program is a research initiative that supports approximately $86.5 billion in research grants. As of April 2020, Israel had received over $1 billion in grants through the project. Unlike other EU responses to annexation, excluding Israel from Horizon 2020 would not require EU consensus to be enacted. Therefore, Israel could not rely on allies in the EU — for example, Hungary or the Czech Republic — to veto this policy.
Cooperation with the Gulf states into Israeli science and health research may also be hindered by annexation. Reportedly, Bahrain, the UAE, and Kuwait have been working with Israel to combat COVID-19. Gulf countries have continued to invest more money into the Israeli science and technology fields as well. Investors from the Gulf are interested in learning about and supporting development of Israeli treatments for COVID-19. Annexation could risk Israel’s funding from the EU and Gulf countries, as well as businesses that pull back support for Israel. While the international community is striving to develop COVID-19 treatments and a vaccine, Israel should not take unilateral moves that may hinder its ability to combat the virus.
Annexation will most likely risk cooperation with the Palestinian Authority on COVID-19. In response to COVID-19, Israel and the PA have expanded their cooperation. Examples of this cooperation include administering tests and supplying masks in the West Bank, as well as transferring additional, indirect tax revenue to the PA. However, the cooperation between the two sides is tense. The PA has blamed Israel for purposefully spreading the virus in the West Bank. Israel has countered that these claims are provocative and proposed the idea of reconsidering the level of COVID-19 cooperation. As Israel and the West Bank begin to ease restrictions, health cooperation is necessary to address rates of infection as Palestinians move across the border with Israel to make money.
Annexing parts of the West Bank will likely cause the virus to spread within the Israel Defense Forces and the West Bank. Threats of annexation are typically met with threats by the PA to end security cooperation with the IDF. The most recent call took place on May 19. On May 21, it was reported that the PA was making good on these threats. In response to annexation, there will also likely be protests in the West Bank. Even though the PA has come out and said they would clandestinely co-operate with Israel and would not allow civil uprisings to take place, there is still a risk. Annexation may threaten the PA’s viability and its ability to contain any protests. Especially if Hamas increases its activities in the West Bank. Given COVID-19’s rate of infection, it is possible that these protests could become hot spots for virus transmission.
This would impact not only Palestinians who are protesting, but also IDF soldiers who would respond to protests. If security cooperation is cut, then responding to protests may fall on the IDF. As the IDF responds to protests and increases patrols, IDF soldiers are subject to increased exposure to the virus. If more soldiers are sick, the number of deployable IDF soldiers would decrease. Annexation during normal conditions is estimated to strain Israel’s active duty and reserve forces. But annexation during a pandemic could cause even greater harm to Israel’s short-term security interests.
Furthermore, under the Trump administration’s Peace to Prosperity plan, the United States supports annexation of West Bank territory. The plan was published before the pandemic began, but its pillars are still being supported. During his recent trip to Israel, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Israeli officials about ways to advance the plan during the pandemic.
One pillar of the plan is economic investment into the Palestinian and regional economies. In total, the Peace to Prosperity plan calls for $50 billion over 10 years. The prospects of this happening during the pandemic, or in its later stages, are slim. Many countries are experiencing economic contractions at rates not seen since the Great Recession. Some forecasts predict that the demand for oil and natural gas throughout 2020 will not meet the level of demand seen in 2019. Given the uncertainty surrounding national reopening strategies, the economic impacts of the pandemic are not known. This is likely to hinder the prospect of large-scale international investment. This is true especially for the Gulf countries that depend on oil and natural gas to finance domestic and international projects. The Gulf countries are typically cast as countries who should be willing to invest in Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The current economic crisis could also hinder broader investment into managing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Support for civil society organizations, peace-building programs, or good governance projects could decrease. When coupled with annexation, the prospect for reconciliation between the Israelis and Palestinians could potentially end.
Supporters of annexation during the COVID-19 pandemic need to be able to address the trade-offs that Israel will have to make. Is it worth it for Israel to potentially lose research and development funding? Is it worth it to lose cooperation with the PA? Is it worth it to take steps to advance a peace plan that assumes international investment when the money is not there? If so, be prepared for the consequences.