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

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

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.

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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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/16/2019 - 10:45 am.

    Lots of problems with this piece.

    To say “[c]ountries don’t annex other countries” is to ignore thousands of years of human history. All over the world borders are and have always been in flux. That isn’t to say that Israel’s plans for the West Bank are good or bad. Its that what is happening there is not particularly unique.

    Similarly, the idea of “rules of the road” or that big guys should look out for the little guys, or even the whole idea that international law matters, is just naive and meaningless.

    Unlike its neighbors, Israel is a democracy. There is an election coming up. And I know they say this every time, but Netanyahu might actually lose this one. But if he does win, do you know why that will be? Because Israelis value their own safety and security more than than justice for the Palestinians. Because they remember children being murdered.

    • Submitted by Alex Betley on 09/16/2019 - 01:41 pm.

      Hi Pat — happy to respond directly to your comments. The reason one uses the clear contrast with international opposition to the annexation of Crimea is to demonstrate that great powers decide how to respond or not to respond, and that often when they respond, they use the justification of international norms or even international law. It’s clear that international law doesn’t exist as an exogenous constraint on state behavior. Thus the reason hegemons must enforce it. Additionally, you say states have acquired territory for thousands of years and you are correct — except that the modern concept of state sovereignty on which our current international system rests is vastly different than those in previous generations. Sorry, it’s just not the same, and no IR scholar (realist, liberal, whatever) would suggest it is.

      That international norms do not matter at all is a wildly fantastic claim. They matter more at sometimes and less at other times depending on historical context. They provide signposts for state behavior and adhering to them as much as possible creates ideological attraction. Sometimes doing the “right thing” has a higher pay off in terms of prestige than doing the “wrong thing.”

      Lastly, annexing the West Bank will likely further incite terror attacks in the region and draw international condemnation. It is not clear that this will actually contribute to Israeli security. Israel would have likely been a more secure state had it resolved its occupation according to UNSCR 242 in timely manner. Instead, Israel dragged its feet and the US did not enforce international norms because there were always designs on territory surround Israel pre-1967.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/16/2019 - 06:01 pm.

        Well, I find the distinction between the modern era of state sovereignty and the history of mankind to be greatly exaggerated. If the emergence of Trump, Orban, Erdogan etc. tells us anything its the idea that the modern, post-WWII era of stability (which itself had its wars and genocides) is a mirage.

        The hegemons are only enforcing international law to serve their own needs. The other Arab states don’t even care about the Palestinians. Egypt has a wall around Gaza just like Israel does.

        Israel’s right wingers want those terror attacks. It will justify their annexation. Palestinian terror attacks play into Netanyahu’s hands. They also mute the international condemnation, notbthat anyone really cares anyway.

        The 1967 borders? That ship sailed a long time ago. If you are serious about peace and a Palestinian state, you need to move on. But maybe its all just grandstanding.

        • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 09/18/2019 - 07:16 am.

          Setting the stage for a Bantustan offering.

          We reached this point not due to modern “strongmen” like Erdogan. Rather due to the failure of foreign policy under Hillary Clinton and Obama. Every Arab despot and Israeli leader knew that for all their talk of freedom and social justice any Democratic Administration would do nothing to stand for freedoms in the Middle East. Therefore even the Egyptian dictator Sissi took it to the bank when he overthrew the govt. and imprisoned all his opponents. Despite Obamas grandiose speech in Cairo on peace and love, he did nothing. And any “moderate” Democrat will do nothing.

          State side, If Amy Klobuchar signs on to legislation to curtail my First Amendment rights on criticism on Israel, due to you believe she’s going to be any different than Trump in the Middle East.

          Therefore with American diplomacy reduced to supported apartheid and despots in the Middle East other countries like Tureky and Iran have stepped in to the vacuum to establish their own space. And the Saudis just got a reminder this week of that.

          Egypt has a wall, not like Israel. Rather it wants to make sure Israel doesn’t palm off Gaza onto them.

          When Pat claims Israel is a democracy, i’d like to know who the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who are under Israeli rule can vote for.

    • Submitted by Joel Stegner on 09/16/2019 - 02:09 pm.

      Because they recall children being murdered? And how many Palestinian children have been killed for every Israeli child? Annexation is theft, prohibited by the Ten Commandments. Of course, Netanyahu is like King David who ordered a soldier killed so he could have his wife. Explain how that is OK!

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/16/2019 - 05:44 pm.

        You have completely missed the point.

        I find what has happened to the Palestinians to be tragic and Israel’s actions to be terrible at times. I oppose Netanyahu and expansion into the West Bank. I support a Palestinian state.

        My point is on how you get there. And the reason we have Netanyahu and the peace process has gone backwards is because of Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians Security became more important than justice. That is what is driving them. Ensure their security, then a peaceful resolution is back on the table.

        • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 09/18/2019 - 07:02 am.

          If security was more important that justice, then why build the wall and settlements on Palestinian land ? I

          t’s never been about security, but rather an open process to gradually dispossess those peoples of their lands knowing fully well that American politicians, Democrats included, will allow nothing at the UN to stop this.

          Security is and has been an excuse that Democrats like Clinton, Klobuchar, Biden hang their hat on. Else it lays bare their hypocrisy of criticizing Trump on immigrants and minorities while sponsoring through billions of dollars in aid the very activities in Israel.

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