West Bank Annexation Would Be a Strategic Blunder | Opinion

West Bank annexation is a classic example of a maneuver that carries enormous risks with few, if any, rewards. The argument in favor of annexing the West Bank is an appeal to a powerful and emotional, but ultimately symbolic, victory. In doing so, however, Israel will create a host of tangible, real-world problems that will undermine the supposed benefits that annexing the West Bank would convey.

The most common arguments against West Bank annexation have to do with the opposition from the international community and the diplomatic fallout for Israel. Depending on how it unfolds, these might range from a near-certain condemnation from the United Nations and European countries, to the refreezing of recently thawed relations with various Sunni Arab states, to the suspension of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. There is also the matter of turning Israel into even more of a wedge issue in the United States between Republicans and Democrats, and endangering the future of bipartisan support for Israel among American policymakers. Finally, there is the inescapable fact that West Bank annexation will put a potential resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that respects the dreams for independence and sovereignty of both Israelis and Palestinians further out of reach. These are all important considerations, but there are reasons that are more proximate and closer to home for Israelis that weigh against annexation.

First and foremost, West Bank annexation will create a bevy of security challenges for Israel that do not currently plague it. Annexation of the portions of the West Bank envisioned under the recently unveiled Trump peace plan as becoming part of Israel proper will create a new border between Israel and the West Bank that, at 850 miles long, is more than quadruple the 197 miles of the current Green Line and nearly double the 460 mile length of the current security barrier that serves as a de facto border.

Not only will Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops have to patrol the length of this new border, which also traverses mountainous and inhospitable terrain in many spots, but they will have to secure the fifteen enclaves of Israeli territory that the Trump annexation plan leaves behind inside of the non-annexed portion of the West Bank. These enclaves—along with the roads between them, the roads linking them to Israel, and the security buffer zones that will be required for each of these components—will be guarded by IDF troops in what is essentially hostile territory. What this might look like can be gleaned from a similar situation that exists today in Hebron, where the IDF requires more than one soldier per Jewish resident in order to effectively protect the city's Israeli citizens.

This situation becomes exponentially more complicated if Israel annexes what the Oslo Accords dubbed "Area C," which is the most popular annexation plan in Israeli circles and is championed by, among others, current Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett. Area C, which is 60% of the West Bank, contains within it 169 islands of Areas A and B that are under the administration of the Palestinian Authority. Annexing Area C would leave Israel with 169 separate borders in the West Bank alone, all requiring their own border walls if Israel is to maintain its current security architecture and posture. Building and maintaining those 169 new borders would not only cost $7.5 billion at the outset and $1.5 billion in annual maintenance costs, but it would require thousands of IDF soldiers to patrol and man those border structures and gates, all while creating what would possibly be the most unwieldy and least defensible border regime in human history.

No matter the precise partial annexation plan, all of them rely on the Palestinian Authority remaining in power and continuing to act as the effective government for West Bank Palestinians. Whether it be the Trump plan or Area C annexation, the animating idea is to incorporate as many Israelis into Israel with the fewest number of Palestinians. But the danger of partial annexation is that it will inevitably weaken the Palestinian Authority and, at some point, lead to either its involuntary collapse or its purposeful rejection of any past understandings with Israel. Should this happen, the result is the same as if Israel were to annex the entirety of the West Bank: a security nightmare in which the IDF has to carry out basic law and order policing inside Palestinian cities and towns, responsibility for running the lives of 2.5 million Palestinians to the tune of an additional $20 billion a year, and a choice between granting those Palestinians Israeli citizenship or denying them basic political and civil rights. No matter the path that is chosen, Israel becomes a very different country and Zionism's vision of a Jewish state that is accepted by the community of nations suffers a terrible blow.

Old City Jerusalem at dusk
Old City Jerusalem at dusk EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

What makes assuming the risks that annexation entails even more myopic is that Israel already enjoys many of the benefits that annexation would allegedly confer. Today, Israel exercises complete security control of the Jordan Valley, Jews are living in Jewish communities across the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria, Israel has security relationships with its neighbors, including the Palestinian Authority, and the world accepts Israel as a Jewish state. Annexation will not create these possibilities, because they already exist. It will instead put them all at risk, to varying degrees. Formally extending sovereignty over the West Bank is not going to be recognized by any country outside of the U.S.—whose own recognition may last only as long as President Trump's tenure in office—and will certainly not create affirmation of the Jewish connection to the land of the patriarchs that Jews already know exist. It will not magically cause the Palestinians to drop their wish for sovereignty and independence any more than thousands of years of Jewish exile erased dreams of a Jewish homeland. And it will certainly not put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The alternative to West Bank annexation is not the creation of a terrorist state on Israel's borders. This straw man argument posits that the choices are Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria or immediate Israeli withdrawal from the territory, but nobody is advocating that Israel unilaterally or immediately withdraw from the West Bank. The actual choices are an incredibly reckless and foolhardy upending of the status quo that will destroy Israel's freedom of action, or maintaining the current basic situation while working to create a political and security environment where a negotiated permanent status agreement can be possible in the future. Doing so will enable Israel to incorporate the vast majority of Israelis living in Jewish communities over the Green Line into Israel and establish security arrangements in the territory that it leaves behind, rather than suffer the security repercussions that will come from annexing territory unilaterally. For anyone who cares about Israel's future, the decision should be an easy one.

Michael J. Koplow is the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.​​​​