Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement this week that he has been maintaining a dialogue with the Americans for some time on extending Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements on the West Bank was immediately refuted by Washington . White House spokesman Josh Raffle said that reports of the US and Israel discussing West Bank annexation plans were a lie. According to him, the president is still focused on developing a peaceful initiative for the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In an interview published by Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom, Donald Trump also expressed doubts about Israel and the Palestinians being ready to achieve peace and pointed out that the settlements have always complicated the peace process. In addition, he noted that Israel should be very careful about the settlements issue.
Netanyahu’s statement should be looked at in the context of the general policy his government has pursued in recent years with regard to the West Bank of Jordan. In particular, on February 12, the Knesset passed a law on the extension of Israeli jurisdiction to all higher educational institutions located in Jewish settlements. The new legislation transferred all academic institutions in the settlements to the Council for Higher Education in Israel, and liquidated the Council for Higher Education for Judea and Samaria. A year ago, the Knesset legalized most of the so-called outposts – unauthorized settlements, which, in accordance with a number of previous agreements, were subject to demolition. Under the new law, settlers can remain in their homes, even if they are built on the land of private Palestinian owners, until political agreements between the parties to the conflict are reached.
According to the Yesha Council, in 2017, the number of Jewish residents in the West Bank increased by 3.9% compared to 2015, exceeding population growth in Israel itself . Currently, more than 420,000 people live in Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and about 200,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem. In one of his recent speeches, Minister of Jerusalem Affairs and Minister of Environmental Protection Ze'ev Elkin argued that Israel would need from 10 to 20 years to have the Jewish population in settlements reach one million .
Opinion polls show that there are far fewer West Bank annexation supporters among Israelis than those who support the achievement of permanent or at least temporary arrangements for delineation from the Palestinians. Yet, the ruling right-wing coalition has managed to implement moves that actually indicate intentions to gradually annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank, blocking the possibility of building an independent, territorially integrated Palestinian state there.
In these circumstances, there is an interest among moderate Palestinian politicians in the idea of a single binational state. This implies dissolving the Palestinian Authority and returning to the administration of the territories according to the pre-1994 arrangement, when Palestinian Arabs exercised local self-government while keeping the Israeli occupation administration. They believe this status of the territories will allow the Palestinian population to use non-violent methods to fight for the implementation of their political rights within one state. The categorical rejection of this idea by the majority of Israeli society, however, makes this possibility rather unlikely. It is more likely that the activities of the Palestinian leadership to seek support from the international community, going as far as applying to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to increase pressure on Israel and resume the peace process, might have some effect. However, any imbalance in the approach of international organizations or individual members of the international community to the conflict will have the opposite effect, as was the case with the UNESCO resolution on Jerusalem last year.
The Arab world’s low-key response to Donald Trump’s December statement about Jerusalem reaffirmed that these days the Palestinian problem does not enjoy priority in the foreign policy objectives of Arab leaders. Arab states are much more interested in cooperating with Israel (more or less publicly) in such areas as deterring the Iranian threat and combating Islamic terrorism and extremism than in opposing the Israeli settlement policy. The slogan of the struggle for the liberation of Palestine and Jerusalem has been taken over by radical Islamic groups, which use it as an effective propaganda tool for recruiting new members. This, however, does not mean that the real liberation of Palestine is high on their agenda. The danger of Islamists turning their attention to the Palestinian problem is that it could be transformed from the dimension of a territorial and international conflict into a category of religious and ideological confrontation with the Jews, which would actually preclude any possibility of achieving a political settlement.
The international community does not currently have any effective leverage to impede Israel's settlement projects in the West Bank or to force the parties to sit down at the negotiating table. This is also partly due to the fact that many countries now heed Israeli reasons, that in the face of the growing military danger emanating from the region, having a Palestinian entity probably headed by an unfriendly regime on its border will further exacerbate Israeli security threats.
Still, the EU, for example, has developed a number of policies aimed at containing Israel's settlement activity. In 2015, the Council of the European Union adopted a decision on the special labeling of goods produced in the West Bank, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. In 2013, Israel had to agree to the terms of its participation in the EU-funded Horizon 2020 research program, and had to exclude institutions located in the settlements from this project. Although this policy has been severely criticized by Israel, the EU has remained its main trading partner.
Therefore, Russia, which is currently predicted to play one of the leading roles in the Middle East political processes, might consider the model of EU relations with Israel. This model would enable Russia to stick to its principle line in the issue of settlements, while at the same time maintaining normal partner relations.