ISRAEL’s annexation of swaths of the West Bank (News, 15 May, Comment 29 May) was due to begin on 1 July, but, for various reasons, including a spike in Covid-19 cases, it appears to have been temporarily delayed. To proceed with the plan would have grave consequences not only for Palestinians, but for Israelis, too, and would represent an existential threat to the relationship between Israel and the Jewish diaspora. For many friends of Israel, me included, it is incompatible with the notion of Israel as both a Jewish and a democratic state.
I support both the principles of Zionism and the fostering of better relations between Israel and Palestine, and between Arabs and Jews. I believe that Israel needs a two-state solution as much as the Palestinians. Annexation would mean the abandonment of this goal, perhaps for ever, and would undermine the moral basis on which the state claims to sit.
Like many Jews, I have not wanted to stir internal division within the Jewish community, or give fuel to its anti-Zionist (and sometimes anti-Semitic) enemies. But the desire of the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his allies to extend unilaterally Israeli sovereignty and fail to give Palestinians equal rights is a line that I cannot cross.
Those in favour of annexation believe in the concept of Greater Israel: in other words, the idea that the biblical borders of the Land of Israel are the rightful borders of the modern state; for them, there can be no Palestinian state. Those Israelis who believe that a negotiated two-state solution would be more likely to bring security and a just peace are in a minority.
As a believer in both equality of rights and a Jewish state, I was one of 40 leading British Jews who recently signed a letter to the Israeli Ambassador to the UK condemning the proposed annexation. We wrote that annexation “is a policy that not only lacks merit, but would pose an existential threat to the traditions of Zionism in Britain, and to Israel as we know it”.
The ambassador, Mark Regev, responded by saying that it was necessary to maintain Israel’s security; yet several former Israeli senior military and security officials have insisted that annexation would make Israel less secure. For example, the former head of the Israeli Security Agency Shin Bet, Ami Ayalon, predicted an immediate and dramatic decrease in security co-operation with Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, which he described as a cornerstone of Israeli security.
AMOS OZ, a co-founder of Peace Now, reached a tipping-point when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. A patriot and staunch member of the armed forces, Oz made the distinction between military action to defend the country and action that was aggressive and non-defensive. Extending Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank is my tipping-point.
It would fundamentally damage the relationship between the Jewish diaspora and the State of Israel. Many defend Israel because it is a liberal democracy, which robustly defends itself when necessary, but is committed to maintaining both its Jewish and its democratic status. Annexation would polarise Jewish communities in Britain and elsewhere, and alienate large numbers from engaging with Israel at all — particularly younger generations of Jews who do not remember a time when Israel was threatened by its neighbours.
I recognise that annexation is partly the result of United States politics, and that President Trump cares more about courting the Protestant Evangelical vote than concern for Israel. I also acknowledge that the Palestinian authorities and Hamas have frustrated credible peace plans and failed to propose realistic peace proposals of their own.
Neither President Trump nor Mr Netanyahu, however, is concerned about the Palestinians. Both men are populist nationalists who pursue polarisation and reject nuanced interpretations of Zionism. It cannot be right for Israelis to have their own state and then deny the Palestinians one of their own. The unilateral appropriation of land is the work of opportunists who trample over the fundamental rights of Palestinians, with disdain for the values of equality, freedom, and self-determination to which they give lip-service.
Modern Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel have provided a place of safety for Jews in their historic homeland, which the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, culminating in the Holocaust, had made imperative. For the first time in 2000 years, they controlled their own destiny. But Israel must allow for equal rights for all citizens — including the Palestinians — who live in and share the same land.
Annexation would pressure Christian-Jewish relations and damage relations between Muslims and Jews (which have been gaining momentum in recent years). Although Jewish partners in interfaith dialogue would be pressed to express support for the Israeli government, and some might find it hard to resist, I would add my voice to the joint criticism of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Vincent Nichols. It is not hard to imagine how annexation might undermine some of the progress that has taken place in Christian-Jewish relations since Vatican II (1965).
FOR the most part, over 70 years — while recognising the problems and marginalisation of Palestinians — Israel has been both a place of safety (and of flourishing) for Jews and a democratic state.
Annexation, and effectively ending the possibility of two states, would make this no longer possible. It would deny the legitimate desire of Palestinians for a state of their own, and sow the seeds of division — between Jews, and Jews and Christians, as well as between Jews and Muslims.
This is a battle for the soul of the Jewish state, and, by extension, the Jewish people.
Dr Ed Kessler is founder director of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge.