Annexation Fever: Hitching a Ride on the Trump Plan

Published at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI)

Dr. Nimrod Novik

The announcement of President Trumps “deal of the century” unleashed a viral-like spread of unilateral annexation fever.  For proponents of annexation, the plan was an historic opportunity to realize their ambitions:  on one hand a prime minister under duress, on the eve of elections, desperate for every vote that can help him evade his day in court; and on other hand the unqualified support of an American president for Israel’s every caprice.  This was their chance to put paid to the two state solution once and for all and establish Israeli sovereignty over large swaths of Judea and Samaria.

Even the most ardent supporters of annexation, however, are cognizant of the widespread public apprehension about extending Israeli rule over millions of Palestinians.  It should come as no surprise, therefore, that they have gone to great lengths coming up with novel plans for “annexation deluxe:” ever more imaginative ways of extending Israeli sovereignty over significant portions of the West Bank without annexing significant numbers of Palestinians.

The question they avoid asking, and have no answer for, is whether Israel will be able to control the chain of events triggered by annexationist legislation, that, while starting with limited steps, may lead to the sweeping annexation the public dreads most.

Over the course of two years a team from Commanders for Israel’s Security conducted in depth and comprehensive research on this very issue.*  Their point of departure was that Knesset approval of legislation to annex portions of Judea and Samaria – whether limited or extensive in scope – could not be understood as anything other than closing the door, once and for all, on the chances for a negotiated settlement.  Formally adopting a policy that calls for unilaterally determining the future of the territories and their inhabitants will set in motion a cascade of falling dominos, with destructive implications for the security of Israel, the wellbeing of its citizens and the very character of the state itself.

This can best be illustrated by considering the turning point after which Israel could lose control of the chain of events and end up managing (and financing) the lives of millions of Palestinians in  theBankasBank well as, in all likelihood, the Gaza Strip as well.

That turning point will come with the breakdown of coordination between the security forces of the Palestinian Authority (PA) on the one hand and the IDF and Israel Security Agency (ISA) on the other. It is a policy, to be sure, that enjoyed widespread popular support among Palestinians who saw their own security forces – and whose forces saw themselves – as symbols of a state in the making.  This esprit de corps, and accompanying public acclaim, has only grown as Palestinian units prove their mettle by maintaining public security and thwarting efforts by elements hostile to the PA to gain a foothold.  Trained in Jordan and the West Bank by military advisors from western countries, in a program supervised by an American general, Palestinian security forces have earned the respect of the IDF and the ISA for their role in the fight against terror and their help in saving Israeli lives.

As the peace process has receded, however, and with it hopes for independence, so has public support for these very same Palestinian security forces, along with the morale of their recruits.  The view that these forces no longer represent Palestinian national aspirations but, rather, the interests of Israel’s seemingly interminable occupation, has gained increasing currency and, along with it, allegations that cooperation with Israel is nothing less than treason.  Senior Palestinian officers have suggested that monthly salaries will soon be an insufficient incentive to offset the social pressure on their subordinates to abandon their posts. Some even predicted that in the event of a violent outbreak on the West Bank, Palestinian security personnel could simply take their weapons and join the unrest. They observed, despairingly, that aside from the Israeli military establishment, few Israelis seem to realize that preserving the motivation of Palestinian servicemen is in Israel’s security interest.

It is a commonly held -- and probably justified -- belief that the leadership of the PA,  Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in particular, are unlikely to express their frustration with Israeli policies by a tiny on their threats to terminate security cooperation with Israel .  This cooperation, after all, is essential for the PA’s own struggle with the Hammas.  What this apparent truism overlooks, however, is the possibility that security cooperation collapses due to peer pressure making it impossible for the men in uniform to show up for work. That in response to facts on the ground the authority of the Palestinian leadership may prove to be of no use.

In an effort to ascertain what kind of event could trigger such a result, Commanders for Israel’s Security came to the conclusion that Israeli annexation levislation, even limited in scope, could tear away the veil that allows Palestinian security personnel to argue they are still fulfilling a patriotic mission. While creeping annexation of the kind that has been going on for decades has not extinguished the hopes of Palestinians in a future settlement, a decision by the Knesset in favor of unilateral annexation would send a message that chances for a peace agreement are now dead and buried, that Israel alone will decide on the contours of Palestinian sovereignty, and that there is no longer any chance of establishing a viable Palestinian state.

A mass desertion by Palestinian security personnel – whether or not they actually join a popular uprising – would create a security vacuum that draws in all those held in check until now:  armed criminal and terror elements, the Hammas above all.

The IDF could, of course, take control of Palestinian cities and towns in areas A and B, either preemptively or in order to expel hostile elements.  Whether the PA survives, goes into exile or collapses, such an eventuality would saddle Israel with responsibility for the lives of 2.6 million Palestinians in the West Bank. On the reasonable assumption that the Gaza Strip would not remain calm under those circumstances, the IDF might also be called upon to occupy the coastal enclave, putting it in charge of another two million civilians.  We would then be left with no exit strategy in either region.

Since donor countries cannot be expected to finance the needs of five million Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza under conditions of complete Israeli control resulting from annexation to which they objected in the first place, the Israeli taxpayer will have to foot the bill, amounting to tens of millions of shekels annually, year in and year out.

Some may argue that, if necessary, Israelis would not object to a drop in their standard of living or the level of public services they currently enjoy. Given the consequences to every Israeli household, not only does this assumption seem overly simplistic, but the IDF does not have the privilege of likewise tightening it’s belt. The entire standing army, and a good portion of the reserves, would be tied up maintaining order in the territories – leaving precious few resources to face challenges from the north (Syria, Hezbollah) or the east (Iran).  But the risks do not end there.  In reaction to legislation on annexation, Jordan might terminate existing security collaboration with Israel.  Here, too, the Jordanian monarchy could reach that point, not because it underestimates of the value of cooperating with Israel, but because of pressure from below that would threaten its own stability.  Israel’s eastern security frontier, it should be noted, is not along the Jordan River, but rather hundreds of kilometers to the east, on the border between Jordan and Iraq.  This strategic depth, this broad zone for early warning and preemptive action by land and air forces – all vital for Israel’s defense against Iran and other hostile forces – would be an additional casualty of unilateral annexation.

There is no question that the Israeli government has the authority to proceed with annexation if it so chooses.  This, however, is no routine policy decision.  It is a move with far reaching implications for the nation’s security and economic health, its regional and international standing, its society, values and demographic characteristics.  It is a decision that should only be made in a broader political context, after comprehensive, inter-ministerial staff work, after extensive deliberations by the cabinet, the Knesset and the general public, and after it has been approved by referendum.

It is worth observing that, while forfeiting sovereign Israeli territory requires a two thirds majority of the Knesset (80 MKs) or a majority in a national referendum, a simple government decision is all that is needed to annex.  Given the destructive potential that unilateral annexation carries with it, we would do well to consider bringing the two options into legislative balance, thereby guaranteeing that any such decision will only be made after serious consideration and careful study.

Dr. Nimrod Novik served as the senior policy adviser to Prime Minister Peres. He is the Israel Fellow of the Israel Policy Forum and a member of the steering committee of Commanders for Israel's Security.

* For a summary of the findings, see  For the full report, see

Palestinian Reconciliation: Does Cairo’s recent move hold more promise?

Cairo’s Objectives and Strategy

In its Gaza policy, the government of Egypt (GOE) seeks to achieve four national security objectives:

  1. Decouple Hamas from its mother movement, the Muslim Brotherhood;
  2. Deterring Hamas from cooperating with Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda affiliates in the Sinai;
  3. Avoiding friction with Israel that might jeopardize the unprecedented security cooperation between the two; including reducing prospects for another round of Israel-Hamas violence;
  4. Regaining Cairo’s central position in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (with the domestic, regional, and international bonuses that entails).

Utilizing both sticks and [the promise of] carrots, Cairo has pressed the PA and Hamas for several years to pursue a three-phase Palestinian strategy:

First, intra-Fatah and intra-Hamas changes:

  • For Fatah: reinvigorate the movement via “internal reconciliation”, meaning an end to the rivalry between PA President Mahmoud Abbas and former Preventive Security Force (PSF) head Mohammad Dahlan that tore the movement apart.
  • For Hamas: distancing the organization from any cooperation, or even loose affiliation, with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Second, a unified, stronger Fatah and a somewhat more moderate Hamas will take on the tough issue of “Palestinian reconciliation,” bridging the West Bank-Gaza divide and restoring PA presence to the Strip.

Lastly, a unified Palestinian polity, wherein Abbas is empowered to represent all and Hamas need not “dirty its hands” by engaging Israelis, will enter into negotiations with Israel.

So far, this rational sequence has proven too ambitious given local and regional complexities (and irrational behavior): Abbas would not consider reconciling with Dahlan; backed by Qatar, Hamas resisted Egyptian pressure to change course; and in late 2014, when an opportunity emerged to begin gradually restoring the PA presence in Gaza, a defiant Abbas insisted on all or nothing.

A Changed Strategic Environment

Resigned to failure on the first phase (of an Abbas-Dahlan reconciliation), but exploiting the Dahlan factor nonetheless (below), Egypt determined to seize on changing circumstances to leapfrog into the even more demanding second phase of its strategy: a Fatah/PA-Hamas rapprochement.

It took a rare coincidence of dramatic changes in five theaters to inject new life into the Egyptian effort:

Inside Hamas:

Amidst an imminent humanitarian crisis, military head Yahya Sinwar’s election to the top leadership position in Gaza proved to be significant. While many, including Israel’s intelligence agencies, expected Sinwar to lead an aggressive, belligerent policy, Egypt’s intelligence services knew better.

Indeed, Sinwar was not the first strongman subjected to the “friendly GID re-education” process. Previously it was Ahmed Jabary, one of Sinwar’s predecessors in Hamas, who underwent the Egyptian treatment with impressive results. Ultimately though, an Israeli drone terminated that process, and Jabary’s death triggered the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense. Betting similarly on Sinwar’s ‘domestication’, Cairo saw in him a potentially potent partner in affecting Hamas strategy.

As it turns out, Egyptian designs suited Sinwar just fine, as he was looking for support in his ambition of unifying the Palestinian polity by bringing Hamas into the PLO and thence running for leadership of all Palestinians.

Consequently, thus far, the Egyptian investment seems to have paid off handsomely: a few months after Sinwar’s election, Hamas distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood; the group decided to accommodate Egypt regarding Sinai security as well, albeit gradually; and now, Sinwar seems determined to change course on the issue of Palestinian reconciliation. In a surprising move he decided to yield civilian management of the Strip to the PA.

To date, Sinwar’s impeccable security credentials and tough image - shored up by blunt threats to “break the bones” of opponents - seem to have restrained widespread opposition to his sweeping and bold move. As many Hamas operatives are likely to lose jobs, influence and power should reconciliation reach its fruition, Sinwar’s protection detail has been enhanced and the GID is closely engaged.

From the West Bank:

Determined to deter Hamas from cozying up to Dahlan, and to force the movement to dismantle the alternative, separate government structure it had created, a few weeks ago President Abbas issued instructions for a wave of draconian measures making life in Gaza even more miserable than before. Whatever the objectives, the increased suffering of the Gaza population intensified Sinwar’s concern about an Arab Spring-like popular eruption. Absent other allies, his derived attentiveness to Egyptian preaching proved useful to the GID strategy.

From the region:

To make matters worse for Hamas, the unprecedented crisis between the Arab Quartet (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Egypt) and Qatar, yielded two complementary results. First, Qatar - Hamas’s primary financial patron and sponsor for Gaza reconstruction - all but disappeared from the scene. Second, Cairo’s ally in the Arab Quartet (and Dahlan’s political and financial benefactor), the UAE, took Doha’s place. Although the Emiratis proved far less generous than Qatar, absent much competition, they did receive Hamas attention.

As funding from Abu Dhabi has been distributed by the UAE’s (and Cairo’s) favorite Palestinian son, Mohammad Dahlan, this proved useful in attracting Abbas’s attention as well. Cairo and its partners seemed determined to bring Dahlan back to Gaza should Abbas keep playing hard to get on the Egyptian strategy of gradual reconciliation.

From the United States:

An equally surprising development has been the seeming relaxation of the U.S. veto over intra-Palestinian reconciliation. Assuming those involved are not ignorant of the fact that restoring PA rule (however partial and gradual) presupposes a measure of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and Hamas-PA cooperation, twice in recent days authorized American officials proposed just that. First, during a tour of the Gaza surrounding, Jason Greenblatt called for restoring PA control. This position has since been formalized in a September 29th statement of the Quartet (the U.S., Russia, European Union, and United Nations), which could not have been made without Washington’s consent. To allay any doubts about U.S. policy, Greenblatt drew attention to the statement using a favorite Trump-era medium: Twitter.

From Israel:

At least equally as surprising as tacit American support for Palestinian reconciliation is Israel’s acquiescence. In a seeming departure with a long held policy of separation, designed to enshrine the West Bank-Gaza divide, Israel approved the departure of the unprecedented (in numbers and seniority) West Bank delegation for the Egyptian-convened reconciliation negotiations in Gaza.

Moreover, Israel’s (thus far) restrained response to the unfolding agreement stands in sharp contrast with previous threats from Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, promising severe sanctions should Abbas proceed with reconciliation. Although Netanyahu did pay lip service to his base by placing conditions on Israel’s acquiescence with the move, this was a far cry from past flat veto reinforced by concrete threats.

One wonders whether Netanyahu has had a change of heart, or chose to yield to external pressure (from Cairo? Washington? Both?) while studying his options. Traditionally Netanyahu tended to restrain his reaction whenever he concluded that he could ‘trust’ the Palestinians to make a mess of the situation without his ‘help’. Is that what we are witnessing now, and if so, might he miss the moment to prevent it?

Weapons: Will ‘All or Nothing’ Yield to Gradualism?

The ultimate fate of Palestinian reconciliation remains indeterminate and the issues separating the two entities are difficult to negotiate. As noted above, third party sabotage should not be ruled out either. Nonetheless, it seems that, at least for now, the Egypt-PA tug-of-war over Egyptian gradualism versus Abbas’s stubborn ‘all or nothing’ approach, is sliding in the former’s favor.

This is no more in evidence than on the toughest issue of all: weapons. Hamas is consistently resisting any suggestion of disarmament and yielding to the Abbas demand for “one polity, one law, one weapon,” as a precondition for reconciliation. Still, Cairo’s gradualism has extracted from Hamas one major concession on this issues: for the first time in a decade, Hamas agreed to give up its monopoly over armed force in Gaza.

This is to be manifest in three ways:

  • First, when it comes to law and order in Gaza, Cairo insists that the 20,000 strong armed officers of the local “blue police”, Internal Security, National Security and General Intelligence, will all answer to the PA-dominated unity government.
  • Next, resigning to a non-negotiable Egyptian condition for opening the Rafah crossing, Hamas undertook to distance its forces from all border crossings as well as the entire stretch of the Gaza-Egypt border, to be replaced by some 3,000 PA armed troops (presumably from the Presidential Guard).
  • Finally, while insisting on its right to weapons for the purpose of “resisting the occupation” until Palestinian statehood is a reality, hence refusing to dismantle its 18,000 strong Military Arm, Hamas accepted the following:
    • The Military Arm will be either dismantled or incorporated into a unified Palestinian national security structure once agreement with Israel is concluded;
    • Until then, all decisions on utilizing armed force against Israel will be taken jointly with the PA;
    • Throughout, a senior Egyptian security team will be stationed in Gaza and lead an inter-Arab group to oversee adherence to the agreement and serve as arbitrators when needed.

However far reaching, these partial commitments have yet to be implemented. They certainly do not meet Abbas, U.S., or Israeli demands for legitimizing Hamas.

Nevertheless, the first visit to Gaza in several years by senior Egyptian intelligence officials sent a powerful signal. The delegation, led by GID chief Mohammad Fawzi, oversaw the reconciliation gathering and insisted on adherence to the governing principles agreed to by both delegations while in Cairo. With both parties due in Cairo again in the coming days, the strength of Egypt’s resolve and its skill in exploiting a changed context for Palestinian reconciliation are soon to be tested.

End Note

Thus far, these dramatic developments have attracted the attention of Israeli-Palestinian policy junkies alone, and for a very good reason: past failures justify skepticism. This time too, the gaps between the parties on important issues are substantial; internal opposition (mostly in Hamas, but also in Fatah) is mounting; more extreme Palestinian factions can be expected to try and derail the process; and Israel’s position – whether a strategic change or temporary tactical tolerance – is yet to be revealed.

Nonetheless, as Egypt alone could not have generated and synchronize all pieces of the currently moving regional puzzle, one wonders whether in the otherwise inept Trump administration there is a pocket of excellence around Chief Negotiator Greenblatt that is doing something right. For if the Egyptian move proves more significant than all prior efforts, one consequence might be the evaporation of the West Bank-Gaza divide as a major impediment for progress on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the attainment of the “ultimate deal”.  If that were to happen, those eager to avoid two-state negotiations altogether will be deprived of a prime excuse.

Given all that, ones fingers must be crossed for the success of the Egyptian effort, which offers a cautious note of hope in an otherwise quite gloomy situation.

Nimrod Novik is the coordinator of the CIS Gaza team, and a member of our Steering and Executive committees, as well as the Israel Fellow of our IPF partners and a Senior Associate of ECF.




In all matters Israel, the Obama era was marked by two contradictory trends: on the one hand, no previous U.S. commander in chief was as generous in providing the means  resources, technology, intelligence  for securing Israel’s qualitative military edge and ability to defend itself by itself.

President Obama even chose to take no chance in concluding an agreement that secures Israel’s needs for a decade beyond his tenure, even though the expiration date of the previous agreement allowed ample time for his successor to do so himself.

On the other hand, on matters of regional policy, Washington and Jerusalem did not see eye to eye. One needs only recall the early confrontation over a comprehensive settlements freeze and the late conflict over the Iran nuclear deal, as both book-ended a period where disagreement also poisoned personal relations at the very top.

Overcoming the temptation to assign guilt, as a member of the Executive Committee of Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS), I believe I speak for all members—the overwhelming majority of available retired Israeli military generals and our Mossad, Shin Bet, and police equivalents—in expressing gratitude to, and saluting the departing U.S. commander in chief.

Likewise, I speak for all in welcoming his successor and expressing our hope that when it comes to Israel’s security he will prove no less committed than his predecessor, and that on other policy issues, both he and our prime minister seize the opportunity for a restart.

While many in Israel join the rest of the world in a guessing game about the likely policy of the new administration, a possibly more constructive approach would be to suggest how our leaders back home can affect that policy in ways which best serve Israel’s strategic interests.

Indeed, it is time that Israelis who believe that parting with the 2.5 million Palestinian residents of the West Bank, and completing the separation from their almost 2 million brethren in the Gaza Strip is essential for Israel’s security and long-term Jewish and democratic character, abandon the tendency to seek salvation overseas. For that Zionist vision to materialize, decisions must be taken in Jerusalem, not in Washington, D.C.

And once an Israeli prime minister makes the decision to start the long and torturous process of separation, it will not be only the CIS’ 240 generals and our American partners of the Israel policy Forum (IPF), but in the best tradition of bipartisan support, whoever serves in the White House can also be expected to have his back.

Indeed, while conditions may not be ripe for a resolution of all the outstanding issues between Israelis and Palestinians, nonetheless, the situation calls for a bold, independent Israeli initiative which restores credibility to the prime minister’s commitment to a negotiated two-state solution; changes dynamics ‘on the ground’ from confrontation to cooperation; improves conditions for the Palestinians; and preserves conditions for a future negotiated agreement, all while enhancing Israel’s security.

An initiative which does all that—such as the one presented in the CIS “Security First” plan—would affect Israel’s security in a much broader sense as well.

First, it will remove a major irritant from U.S.-Israel relations. Consequently, intimacy and trust will be restored to our bilateral strategic dialogue which is now more important than ever, not the least given the challenge of cooperative monitoring of Iran’s compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal and coordinated responses to violations if detected.

Second, Israel’s standing globally will also improve, and the baseless foundation of hostile movements, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, will be exposed.

And third, a constructive Israeli move on the Palestinian issue, however interim, would allow a concurrent process of Israel’s integration into a U.S.-led regional security structure to begin. It is no secret that concern with Iran’s regional ambitions and with the challenge of ISIS and its likes to the regional state order have already triggered cooperation between pragmatic Sunni Arab countries and Israel.

However, such cooperation has been exclusively under the radar; often indirect, that is via third parties; mostly ad-hoc in nature; and limited in scope. The evolution of a regional structure would offer Israel another layer of security; will enhance security of all its other partners; and over time, contribute to the gradual restoration of regional stability—all presumably also in the best strategic interest of the U.S.

Drawing on the CIS members’ 7,000 years of cumulative security experience, the bottom line seems clear: thanks to the U.S. contribution, but mostly to the courage, dedication and ingenuity of our armed forces, Israel is by far the strongest country in the region. This strength provides our leaders with the space needed to take bold decisions. Once they do, we shall stand by them, and so we believe too will the U.S.

Nimrod Novik is a former senior adviser to the former prime minister of Israel Shimon Peres, a member of the Executive Committee of Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS), and the Israel Fellow of the Israel Policy Forum (IPF).