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Annexing the West Bank: big guys, small guys, and the rules of the road

Countries don’t annex other countries. Or at least that is how the story goes.

Jordan Valley
Palestinian houses and buildings in Jordan Valley in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

Countries don’t annex other countries. Or at least that is how the story goes.

In the field of international law, such a move is deemed an act of aggression, and therefore “illegal.” But in an international arena whose players are made up of a few big guys and a lot of small guys, it is up to the big guys to enforce the rules of the road.

In 2014, when Russia decided to send its “little green men” into the Crimean Peninsula and annex that territory as part of Russia, the United States and its principal allies responded resoundingly. As former Secretary of State John Kerry said at the time: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” That aggression resulted in a coordinated sanctions regime against Russia until the status quo ante in Crimea be restored. That regime, underwritten primarily by the United States, remains in place to this day.

Israel is not Russia, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent campaign promise to annex the Jordan Valley and northern regions around the Dead Sea if re-elected is certainly not “19th century fashion.” But his plan to formally extend Israeli sovereignty to much of the West Bank, a territory seized in a war over 50 years ago and the purported home of a future Palestinian state, does seem to fly right in the face of everything we know about U.N. Security Council Resolutions and acts of aggression.

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Though the West Bank’s status as a legitimate state is tricky, it is probably safe to say that those versed in the language of international law would deem Israeli annexation, should it occur, an act of aggression. Of course, the roughly 50-year military occupation should be as well. What constitutes an act of aggression is hard to pin down, and in the contemporary era this definition has been a moving target. Though we certainly live in an age of global international forums, great powers throughout all historical time periods have retained room to maneuver in obtaining their foreign policy objectives, acts of aggression or not. The United States is no exception.

Alexander Betley
Alexander Betley

In part due to the strategic relationship of Israel with the United States, as well as one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, Israel has largely escaped the consequences of its years-long occupation of the West Bank. Even after the building of massive concrete walls and numerous settlements in occupied territory, the United States, though officially rejecting such projects, has often demurred. The annual aid package from the United States to Israel (by far our largest aid recipient) has always remained intact, recently being extended under the Obama administration. It perhaps should be stated once more: In an international environment made up of a few big guys and a lot of small guys, it is up to the big guys to enforce the rules of the road.

Though the United States no longer enjoys the status of sole superpower it once did after the fall of the Soviet Union, it remains the biggest of the big guys, and therefore a pivotal power in enforcing international norms. Sadly, our blundering into endless wars in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, sapped the attention we might have otherwise devoted to working seriously on alleviating conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Instead of using our strength wisely, we rampaged across the Middle East, not just sowing discord and division, but substantially undermining our international credibility in the process.

Unfortunately, Netanyahu’s most recent pronouncement comes as no surprise to those who have closely monitored the situation for years. Much of the Israeli right has always had designs on “Greater Israel.” That the United States did not seize opportunities in the past to prevent this descent into territorial acquisition, and thereby fulfill its role as a responsible superpower, is highly regrettable. Now we have a U.S. president in Donald Trump quite possibly willing to look the other way as Netanyahu, if re-elected, carries out his annexation plans.

However, the reality is that on this issue we never bothered to enforce the rules of the road in the first place. Countries don’t annex other countries unless the big guys permit them to do so. In the case of Israel annexing the West Bank, this train left the station long ago. Though tragic, that one lesson should be highly instructive to future generations.

Alexander Betley studied philosophy, politics, and economics at St. Olaf College and is a graduate student in international relations at the University of Chicago.

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