On July 1, Israel may finally end decades of “should I stay or should I go” positioning toward the West Bank, territories it captured in 1967. Although Israel has been advancing de facto annexation of West Bank territory for decades, the new government has committed to formalizing Israeli sovereignty over parts of the land in a process beginning on that date. The territory slated for annexation could include most Israeli settlements, spread out throughout the West Bank, or just the Jordan Valley, a band along the eastern edge bordering Jordan. The government might also decide to whittle down the target areas to smaller swaths, settlements around Jerusalem, or just a single strategically located Jewish settlement. The details are not yet known.
Wherever it happens, formalized annexation would dispel any ambiguity about Israel’s intentions—ambiguity that, in the past, had left the door open for a two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Supporters of the two-state approach are expressing anguish; the mainstream Israeli right wing is triumphant, while the far right in Israel believes the anticipated annexation does not go far enough.
Yet the salvo of arguments from each side is highly localized. Even the heated debates over whether annexation would violate international law (it does) often focus exclusively, and microscopically, on this case alone. But annexation of territory conquered in war carries far-reaching dangers that go well beyond Israel, Palestine, bilateral relations abroad, or the Middle East. It threatens the postwar international order at large. Too often, the term “international law” is mentioned as a mantra, rather than as a foundation for world order. The reason these laws and norms exist to begin with has been lost in the politicized shuffle, obfuscating various other problems with the pro-annexation arguments along the way.
Israeli Annexation Didn’t Start Now
Since 1967, Israel has deepened its de facto control over the West Bank. Israel constructed a sprawling network of settlements and an elaborate legal system to maintain military control over the civilian Palestinian population, while incrementally integrating settlements into Israeli civil life and law. Israel has inculcated a national narrative that the West Bank belongs to Israel.
Gaza too remains under tight Israeli control. Israel dismantled settlements and removed the army from the Strip in 2005. However, Israel controls all external perimeters of Gaza except the Rafah crossing with Egypt, maintaining severe restrictions on imports, exports, travel, and population movement—effectively controlling its economy and social life.
In April 2019, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that he planned to formally annex all settlements, which are dispersed throughout the West Bank. In September, he announced a plant to annex the Jordan Valley. The Trump Plan released in January gave a green light to annexation of settlements spread through roughly 30 percent of the West Bank, and the political engine accelerated.
While these developments can be seen as a watershed, they also reflect clear continuity. Israel passed national legislation in 1980 and 1981 extending its sovereignty (using the language “law and jurisdiction”—effectively indistinguishable from annexation) over East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, respectively. The international community did not assent to either annexation, although in 2019, the United States recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights. Many also interpreted Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as an implicit legitimization of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem.
Why International Law Matters
Now anti-annexation warnings have reached a fever-pitch. Israeli and Jewish opponents often argue that the move will backfire against Israel, such as settlement expert Shaul Arieli, who writes of the imminent demographic and economic burden annexation will bring. In a letter to the U.S. Congress, a group of left-wing Israeli ex-parliamentarians decry the injury to Israel’s democracy, warning of potential apartheid, the undermining Palestinian human rights, and damage to U.S.-Israel relations. Even Palestinians, such as the U.S.-based academic Shibley Telhami, argued that annexation proves Israel is no longer Jewish and democratic. Palestinian analyst Tareq Baconi examined ramifications for Palestine and potential responses. Other arguments against the policy include potential international isolation for Israel, damage not only to bilateral relations with the United States, but also with the Democratic party in particular, alongside European countries.
Critics roundly agree that annexation violates international law. The right wing does not dispute this, and argues that somehow Israeli sovereignty is not annexation. But portraying international law as sacrosanct for its own sake is insufficient. The reasons behind the prohibition on conquering territory by force must be made clear. When Telhami writes that policy (or opposition to it) must “be grounded in the principles of international law and norms,” he is correct—but why?
Conquering territory by force is a tremendous incentive for war.
Conquering territory by force is a tremendous incentive for war. John Mueller, a prominent scholar of war and international relations, observes that territorial conquest was among the most common reasons for conventional war.
Following the orgy of territorial conquest and human destruction of World War II, the United Nations Founding Charter, Article 2.4, was the world’s broadest attempt to end the practice: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.” Annexation, or acquisition of territory by force, is inherently unilateral—if territory is acquired by agreement, no force is required.
Scholars still express astonishment that, to a large extent, this prohibition has worked. Vicious intra-state conflict and violence continue to plague human society, but conventional state-to-state warfare has declined since the mid-twentieth century. Mueller explains that “the prohibition against territorial aggression has been astoundingly successful.”
Employing force to possess territory can violate another powerful twentieth-century norm: self-determination. States are prohibited from taking action that violates the right to self-determination of people in territories even if they are not yet sovereign states. UN General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 2625 (1970), considered the consensus interpretation of the UN charter, reads: “Every state has the duty to refrain from any forcible action which deprives peoples . . . their right to self-determination and freedom and independence.”
The legal theorist James R. Crawford considers the illegality of annexation preventing self-determination of non-sovereign areas to be “straightforward,” citing examples unrelated to Israel or Palestine.
On the basis of self-determination claims, in 2004, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion against the route of Israel’s separation wall, writing: “The Court would recall that in 1971 it emphasized that . . . international law in regard to non-self-governing territories, as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, made the principle of self-determination applicable to all [such territories].” The court determined that the route amounted to de facto annexation, and “severely impedes the exercise by the Palestinian people of its right to self-determination, and is therefore a breach of Israel’s obligation to respect that right.”
Regarding Israel’s July 1 plans, an international group of legal scholars wrote an open letter to Israeli leaders, stating “This prohibition [on annexation] applies equally to territories belonging to other states, as well as to non-self-governing territories in which peoples are entitled to . . . self-determination.”
The prohibition on denying self-determination—even in non-state territories—directly contradicts the talking point that taking West Bank settlements “doesn’t count,” because the West Bank was not a state in 1967. (Jordan annexed the West Bank in 1950; only three countries recognized it.) Nor is the Palestinian claim unique—the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara make the same argument against Morocco’s occupation of the non-sovereign territory. International courts have ruled in favor of the Sahwari claims well.
Erosion of the World Order
Despite the fact that outlawing territorial conquest has made the world safer, this core principle is under threat. In fact, it has never been a perfect system. Open violations are sparse; for example, China effectively annexed Tibet in the 1950s, and Indonesia annexed East Timor in 1975; Morocco invaded Western Sahara at the same time; and Iraq declared its annexation of Kuwait following the invasion that prompted the first Gulf War. Creeping, undeclared annexation or ongoing occupation in other cases represents another threat to the core international principle.
In recent years, Russia is among the top perpetrators, after annexing Crimea in 2014, while invading eastern Ukraine at the same time. But Russia was dismantling territorial integrity of Georgia well before that, quietly inching the borders of breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia deeper into Georgia, sometimes literally overnight. Even if Israel fails to go forward with its maximalist policy on July 1, its decades-long de facto annexation is still undermining the international system and Palestinian self-determination—perhaps more so, since it will keep international punishment at bay. Why should Russia cease its actions in Georgia, if the international norms are unequally applied?
Observers on either side of the local debate should recall that the consequences of normalizing annexation will be felt for years to come, the world over. Those American policymakers who care about global alliances, and who will one day need to reconstruct America’s credibility in a post-Trump world, should re-commit to policies that have helped reduce war over time—instead of helping ignite a new one.
header photo: Palestinians at work in a corn field in Tal al Beida, in the Jordan Valley, one of the areas in the occupied West Bank that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to annex. Source: Amir Levy/Getty Images