As Israel slouches toward annexation, there is the usual rising chorus abroad against this unprecedented move that will shift half a century of Israel's policies. On the one hand, it is natural that Israel would like to clarify the status of almost half a million Israeli citizens who now live in the West Bank. On the other, Israel is going about this important initiative with a lack of seriousness that will weaken Israel's relations abroad at a tense time in world affairs.
The world is in flux. The Trump administration, which has given Israel a blank check to annex, has stated that its policies are to withdraw from foreign wars and not fight in "far away" places. It is erratically flailing about. Whether Trump wins or loses in November, support for Israel in the US is eroding.
Meanwhile, Israel must shift its relations to Asia as Europe also looks to become slightly less relevant over time. Yet it is in Asia that Israel faces challenges from a rising Iran and Turkey, and a China and Russia that are more transactional and tough in their approach. India is among Israel's greatest strategic partners in that region. An as-yet-unfulfilled normalization with the Gulf may be in jeopardy with annexation.
Now let's turn to the annexation itself. Who benefits from Israel annexing a few Jewish communities in the West Bank? Do the residents benefit? It's not clear.
The Palestinians who reside in these areas will not benefit. They don't become Israeli citizens or gain any path to citizenship. They will likely have fewer rights than east Jerusalem Arabs, adding yet another troubling tier to how Israel treats Arabs within its borders.
Annexation gambles Israel's international standing while getting little in return.
This means annexation looks more like a charade, a kind of bait and switch. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has built his career on eroding the chances for a Palestinian state. He may rightly have judged that such a state is an existential threat to Israel. A divided Palestinian polity – part in Gaza and part in Ramallah – has been in Israel's favor during the Netanyahu era. Why upset the apple cart and midwife an annexation plan that doesn't boldly re-draw borders but is actually the worst of both worlds, gambling Israel's international standing and getting little or nothing in return?
"We have to do it to please Trump," someone I spoke to recently said. That's the rumor. Israel needs to make Trump happy, and the president has "given" this to us. Reading former national security advisor John Bolton's book provides an insight into this potentially poisoned chalice.
Bolton supported Israel. But he writes about an administration that has very little interest in foreign policy. Israel is largely alone in what it does. It has free rein to attack Iran or scupper relations with Jordan. Unfortunately, this may empower Israel's worst tendencies: the arrogance that accompanies power.
Israel's current government has ignored Arab countries, preferring the clandestine track of hidden meetings over any real strategic vision. It takes the Gulf for granted. This is clear from the articles in the pro-government daily Israel Hayom slamming the perfectly judicious comments by the UAE, in which the UAE has gone out of its way to warn Israel as a potential friend. Instead of welcoming that and saying "Let's work together," the response was to mock the UAE. How did that help?
Israel forgets just how few actual high-profile meetings its foreign policy chief – usually Netanyahu, as he has absorbed the Foreign Ministry's role into his office – actually holds. While Turkey, Iran, Russia, Qatar, even Hamas and everyone else in the region seem to meet publicly, regularly, Israel barely holds major foreign meetings.
Palestinians who are serious about keeping the peace but who must deal with the fallout know that it is not in Israel's interests to collapse the Palestinian Authority. But Trump's approach has created uncertainty, and Palestinian security forces are concerned about escalation. Their Israeli counterparts are as well.
The situation in the West Bank leaves Palestinians without hope, and people who feel vulnerable economically and politically feel no room to maneuver. PA President Mahmoud Abbas is already isolated, Israel simply wants to erode the situation even more.
Jerusalem doesn't want responsibility for the West Bank.
Yet Jerusalem doesn't want responsibility for the West Bank. It wants the European Union to pay for the PA in Ramallah and Qatar to pay for Gaza's plight. Netanyahu's theory is that he can get some half-baked annexation along with all that.
The problem with annexation and "applying sovereignty," as the Right tends to call it, is that Israel hasn't applied sovereignty in Jerusalem or in Israel. No one who deals with east Jerusalem thinks the city is really unified. Go to Isawiya or Jebl Mukaber or other areas in Jerusalem and see the unified city.
Isawiya is where the police battle rioters, the ones that the prophets of sovereignty don't want to see. If Israel believed it was sovereign in Jerusalem, it would have a bus network and road signs, municipal services and mail delivery in the eastern part of the city. Everyone knows the eastern part of the city is a partially lawless area lacking basic investment and schools and infrastructure.
Israel hasn't even "applied sovereignty" to other parts of the country. Growing violence in Arab communities in Israel shows a deepening divide.
Many Arabs feel more Israeli than in the past, but drive along Route 6 and see the "sovereignty" in the towns from Taiba to Umm el-Fahm: sprawling lack of planning on one side, Jewish communities festooned with apartment towers on the other.
In the Negev, tens of thousands of hectares have become "unrecognized" Bedouin villages. Army bases are sometimes targeted by thieves who take off with weapons, or who drive ATVs around firing ranges for fun while soldiers can do nothing. Parades of young men with automatic rifles take place in some Bedouin towns, and shootouts happen between gangs with police hesitant to even enter the areas.
Is this "sovereignty"? In the West Bank, under military rule, Israel could behave more like an arbitrary ruler. Under "sovereign" Israel, there is growing chaos and abandonment of parts of the country, a divide between rich and poor and between communities. Israel hasn't even bothered to annex part of itself, but it plows huge resources into West Bank communities, ignoring some communities inside the Green Line.
This is the charade of sovereignty; a Netanyahu administration that has not articulated a plan for the future, no plan to annex the whole thing or to enable a Palestinian state. Israel has become what the Arab countries used to be condemned for: the so called "three nos" of no peace, no recognition, no negotiation.
Israel doesn't want a Palestinian state, but it wants to annex parts around the Palestinian Authority. For what? To add to the chaos in Israel by exporting it to the West Bank? To make Israel more like the West Bank or the West Bank's security problems more part of Israel? Maybe the real annexation is that communities in the West Bank are going to annex Israel. It's not Israel that has a settler movement, it's the settler movement that now has a country.
The 4% of the population in areas that might be annexed now control the 96% of those who stand to benefit little, and likely may be affected more in the long run. And of course, no one ever bothers to ask the Palestinians. The Palestinians, weakened since the Second Intifada, have no say. Just like in Jerusalem where the "unified" city has an Arab population that makes up one third of the city but has no city council seats because the population doesn't vote. That's not sovereignty, that decades of disunity.
There is no plan or end goal with the salami sovereignty that is being considered.
There is no plan or end goal with the salami sovereignty that is being considered, with little bits of annexation setting Israel on a new course, potentially inflaming the West Bank and Gaza and friends and allies abroad, while fueling enemies like Iran and critics like Ankara. In the US, where allies are necessary in Congress and the White House, a growing crescendo of dislike for Israel on the Left is looming. Yet the slouching toward annexation continues in Jerusalem.
Seth Frantzman is a Middle East Forum writing fellow and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.