The new Israeli government has been in office for nearly a week, and it is far from the first to set its sights on West Bank annexation—or, more precisely, the elimination of the legal distinction between sovereign Israel and all or some of the occupied territory east of the Green Line. But Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who are set to be the new government’s most influential figures in setting policy in the West Bank, have elevated a new form of annexation to the forefront of the national discourse. This new strain of annexationism emphasizes immediate bureaucratic policy changes over their inevitable result: a one-state reality without rights for Palestinians. It is also far more explicit than ever in its disregard for democratic values and racist incitement against Arabs and Palestinians.

The 37th Government of Israel by Ronen143, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)

Ever since Israel’s conquest of the West Bank in 1967, Israeli leaders have considered various proposals for incorporating some or all of the territory into Israel’s sovereign borders. Indeed, such proposals were not the exclusive domain of the political right; following the Six-Day War, Labor Minister Yigal Allon’s plan to annex large swaths of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley and greater Jerusalem area, served as a blueprint for the Labor-led governments of the next decade. Menachem Begin and his Likud party subsequently rose to power in 1977 on a Greater Israel platform that called for West Bank annexation and opposed territorial compromises in the Biblical heartland. In the post-Oslo era, once the left, center, and center-right of the Israeli political spectrum (including Likud) had at least nominally accepted the notion of Palestinian statehood—or at a minimum, autonomy—in Gaza and the West Bank, the annexation mantle was carried primarily by National Religious right-wingers like Naftali Bennett, who from his entry into politics as leader of the Jewish Home party in 2013 championed Israeli annexation of Area C. Days before the September 2019 elections, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced his first concrete West Bank annexation proposal, which called for applying Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea region. Netanyahu also endorsed the Trump administration’s Peace to Prosperity plan upon its release in early 2020 and announced his intention to begin unilaterally annexing the territory slated for Israeli sovereignty under the proposal—a policy he agreed to put on hold in exchange for normalization with the UAE in August 2020.

President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu at the unveiling of the Peace to Prosperity Plan, January 28, 2020

All of these annexation proposals either explicitly envisioned unilateral application of Israeli sovereignty or at least sought to catalyze a preferred outcome through unilateral Israeli actions, such as the Allon-inspired settlements established in the Jordan Valley in the 1970s. They would also potentially result in the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and prove fatal to prospects for Palestinian statehood, condemning Israel to a one-state reality that would deny Palestinians equal rights, or at most carve out a Swiss cheese autonomy for Palestinians while denying them political rights in Israel. In other words, unilateral annexation would ultimately lead to the end of Israeli democracy. (A notable exception is the Allon Plan’s Jordan option, which envisioned the more heavily populated swaths of the West Bank returned to Jordan in an era predating not only the PA’s founding, but also the PLO and international community’s widespread acceptance of Palestinian statehood on the ‘67 lines, and thus could conceivably be achieved while preserving Israeli democracy.)

Nonetheless, Israeli proponents of annexation have historically gone out of their way to dress their proposals in the trappings of liberal democratic ideals, presenting them as consistent with Israel remaining Jewish and democratic. Naftali Bennett, for example, often spoke of bolstering Palestinian autonomy in Areas A and B, promoting economic development and freedom of movement for Palestinians, and granting Israeli citizenship to Palestinians in Area C—all while entrenching Israeli rule over Area C and denying the vast majority of West Bank Palestinians a voice in the sole political system that exercises true sovereignty over them. The Trump plan claimed to be a two-state solution that would ostensibly provide Palestinians with a vehicle for political self-expression and freedom, but in reality, it was a blueprint for a rump, non-contiguous Palestinian entity filled with Israeli enclaves that would effectively function as an autonomy under overarching Israeli sovereignty. Former President Reuven Rivlin, a longtime proponent of annexation, took democracy more seriously by supporting full citizenship rights for West Bank Palestinians in order to maintain Israel’s democratic character; the glaring shortcoming of such a plan is that it would inevitably deal a fatal blow to Israel’s Jewish character. All of these visions for West Bank annexation seek to allow for Israel to apply its sovereignty to all or parts of the West Bank while preserving, or at least claiming to preserve, democracy.

A view of the West Bank, looking eastward from Jerusalem

That is where this incoming government—specifically its far-right elements, which are sitting firmly in the driver’s seat when it comes to West Bank policy—differs from its antecedents when it comes to annexation. The disappearance of the Naftali Bennett/Yamina brand of National Religious, pro-settler politics from the political map has left Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir as the undisputed leaders of that political and socioreligious tribe. Rather than packaging their one-state ideology in the language of democracy and human rights or at least paying lip service to those values, Smotrich and Ben Gvir openly disregard them. Smotrich’s substantive policy plans for the West Bank to erase bureaucratic distinctions between settlements and sovereign Israel are coupled with Ben Gvir’s populist sloganeering, employing and encouraging racist chants and dog whistles like “may your village burn,” or “death to terrorists” in lieu of “death to Arabs.” Netanyahu’s reported agreement to overturn legislation barring lawmakers from racist incitement will soon free Ben Gvir from any rhetorical shackles. Regarding Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel themselves, rather than emphasizing issues like quality of life and economic development, their proposals include loyalty oaths, deportation of “disloyal” residents and citizens, and changing the rules of engagement to remove any restriction on the use of lethal force against Palestinian protestors. Meanwhile, with Smotrich overseeing the West Bank’s Supreme Planning Committee, we can expect a dramatic crackdown on Palestinian construction in Area C as settlement construction is fast-tracked. It is now all about “mi ba’alei habayit?—who are the landlords?”—a zero-sum struggle to enshrine Jewish dominance from the river to the sea. And once the Knesset has passed a Supreme Court override, there will be no safeguards left protecting minorities’ basic freedoms and rights against the whims of any Knesset majority.

Rabbi Eitan Eizman, a leading figure in the religious Zionist movement by Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image)

Commitment to democratic ideals was once a notion that united Israelis across the political spectrum, even those who simultaneously supported policies that would inevitably force the country to choose between those ideals and Zionism itself. This is far from the first government committed to the principle of applying Israeli sovereignty to Judea and Samaria. But it is the first that no longer cares about striking an impossible balance to maintain the country’s democratic character while doing so. That the Smotrich-Ben Gvir vision of annexationism has won the hearts of so many Israelis and is now set to drive the country’s West Bank policy is a troubling sign, even if the country is miraculously able to preserve the status quo in the territory throughout the government’s term. At least as much as any specific policy, the apparent abandonment of the language of democracy and human rights as common ground between right and left poses a grave long-term threat to the future of Israeli democracy.